How To Look Out for Odometer Rollback When Buying Used Cars

Buying a car with a rolled-back odometer could cost you thousands of dollars. Odometer rollback scams are illegal, but here’s how to spot it.

Man tinkering with odometer on workshop tableShutterstock

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Odometer rollback may seem like a thing of the past, but it still occurs at an alarming rate. An odometer rollback occurs when someone tampers with a vehicle's odometer to make it appear that the car has fewer miles than it actually has.

Buying a car with a false odometer reading could mean the condition of the car you're buying isn't as good as you think, and might result in costly maintenance and repairs you're not prepared to handle.

Here's what you need to know about odometer rollbacks, how they can impact you, and what you can do to spot this fraudulent act.

How Common are Odometer Rollbacks?

Odometer rollbacks were easy to do when the displays were analog, but it's also possible for scammers to do it with newer digital odometers. In fact, the process can be relatively easy to pull off with the right methods and equipment.

For instance, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that more than 450,000 vehicles with false odometer readings are sold every year, resulting in more than $1 billion in losses for consumers.

A rolled-back odometer is an indicator that the vehicle may not be as reliable as the seller purports it to be. Knowing how many miles the car has driven can give you a good idea of how long you can use it, and the maintenance and repairs it might need.

If you buy a car with a rolled-back odometer, your first loss would be the premium you pay for the vehicle because, on the surface, it appears that the car is in better condition than it actually is. Once you've taken ownership, you may also face more maintenance and repair costs than you anticipated, and the vehicle may even break down prematurely relative to your expectations.

How To Avoid Falling Victim to an Odometer Rollback Scam

While an odometer rollback scam can be costly, it's possible to spot one and avoid becoming a victim. For starters, perform a thorough inspection of the vehicle on your own. If the car shows low mileage but has a lot of wear on the seats, pedals, tires, and steering wheel, that may be a sign that something is amiss. Alternatively, here are some other steps you can take:

Check the vehicle history report: For a small fee, you can obtain a copy of the vehicle history report from websites like CARFAX and AutoCheck. This report details the vehicle's ownership history, accidents, title branding, maintenance history, and more. It also typically includes odometer readings at different points in the car's lifespan. If the most recent reading is higher than what the seller shows, it's likely they've tampered with the odometer.

Review the vehicle documents: Request the vehicle's original title, which will show you the car's mileage at the time the title was created. Make sure you ask for the original and not a copy—scammers sometimes forge documents to display different figures. You can also look for maintenance and repair records in the vehicle's glove box to see what mileage numbers you can find. If there are no records, ask the seller for them.

Get a mechanic to inspect the vehicle: While you can watch for signs of tampering on your own, it's always a good idea to hire a mechanic to do an inspection before buying a used vehicle. The inspection typically costs between $100 and $200, but if the mechanic spots evidence of tampering or notes that the vehicle's condition isn't as good as the seller says, it may be a good idea to walk away.

What To Do if You Suspect Odometer Fraud

If you believe a seller committed fraud by rolling back the car's odometer, contact your state's enforcement agency for odometer fraud. Depending on where you live, that may be the state attorney general, state police, department of motor vehicles, office of consumer affairs, or highway patrol.

You'll want to provide them with the seller's information as well as the details you uncovered that show evidence of fraud. While you may not need any recourse, the enforcement agency might be able to stop the seller from victimizing someone else.

If you purchased a car and determined after the fact that the seller committed odometer fraud, take the same steps as above. Your state's enforcement agency can hopefully stop the seller from doing it again and also potentially provide you with recourse for your financial loss.

The Bottom Line

Odometer rollback fraud is alive and well, so it's crucial for car buyers to be vigilant when buying a used vehicle, whether it's from a dealer or a private seller. Make sure you take the time to scrutinize the vehicle, its history, and documents, to spot signs of odometer rollbacks and other forms of fraud. Also hire a mechanic to do an inspection for you.

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Ben Luthi
Ever since I read a personal finance book in college, I've been hooked. I've covered just about everything from credit card rewards and auto financing, to student loans and cryptocurrency. I've worked in banking, auto finance, and financial planning, and I've been writing about all of it since 2013. My top priority is to give people the information they need to make the best financial decisions for themselves.