Consider that over 1.9 million vehicles are estimated to have tampered odometers. The illegal practice inflates the car’s value. You pay more, knowing the car will travel many miles without major repairs.
However, after a few weeks on the road, you are faced with costly repairs such as replacing shocks and struts, brake rotors, plugs, tires, fuel filters, and other draining fixes!
What Is an Odometer?
An odometer is an instrument that records the total distance traveled by the vehicle. The term comes from two Greek words, "path" and "measure". You can check the mileage on a car from the dashboard. On cars with multi-informational displays, you may have to toggle between the display modes with the select knob to see the current reading.
Before you do, it is essential to understand the basics of how a car odometer works to comprehend how vehicle odometer fraud takes place:
Mechanical odometers were the main type of odometer available for cars made in the 20th century, but they are increasingly becoming less common in newer models.
The odometer was part of the speedometer, connected through a flexible drive cable to the gearbox output shaft. The cable worked much like a drive shaft as it spun with the shaft rotating a magnet in the speedometer dashboard unit, moving the speed dial.
If you were to take apart a manual speedometer, you’d find that the odometer is linked to the drive cable using a set of gears and motors that eventually turn the numbered dial that displays mileage.
The unit had many moving parts, and analog odometers had to be perfectly calibrated to measure the distance traveled accurately. But the plastic gears that spun the odometer tended to wear out with use.
In part, this informed the decision to exempt vehicles over 10 years old from odometer disclosure. However, as the average age of a car has risen, a new federal rule introduced in 2020 has extended odometer disclosure for used cars to 20 years. The law applies to vehicles starting with the model year 2011.
Digital odometers have been around since the 1970s but became commonplace in the early 2000s. Modern odometers make use of ABS wheel speed sensors positioned inside the wheel hub to monitor wheel rotation. The sensors detect and record the revolutions of an ABS reluctor ring that turns as the tires turn. This data is then converted into pulse signals and sent to the ECU (Engine Control Unit) for further processing.
This unit relies on an algorithm to compute the distance based on the size of the tires and their revolutions. The Electronic Control Unit then relays the pulses to the digital odometer that displays the vehicle's mileage.
Why Is the Mileage Important?
It tells you how much the car has been utilized and the extent of wear and tear it has endured. You can also tell if the car covered long distances within a short period. For instance, if a 2018 Honda Civic has recorded 100,000 miles on the odometer within three years, it has possibly covered more than 33,000 miles yearly. This figure is way over the average rate and is in no way "Gently used".
Mileage goes hand-in-hand with the value of a car since, with more usage, many critical parts wear out and require replacement. That may lead you to ask:
What is acceptable mileage? Well, it differs based on the model. Some cars clock 500,000 miles easily. Few make it to 1 million miles. But across the board, vehicles that have surpassed 200,000 miles in their lifespan will go for significantly less than they cost when they were brand new.
Why Do People Roll Back Odometers?
Making money is the biggest motivation. If you roll back the mileage from 100,000 miles to 10,000 miles, the car is new, as this is less than what most people cover in one year. The seller can easily add several thousand dollars to the listing price to make a healthy profit.
Low-mileage cars may sell faster, even if priced at the same rates as older cars with the same model year. So, they are always unscrupulous sellers looking to take advantage of clients by rolling back their odometers.
As you may guess, the practice is highly illegal and discouraged. Consequently, if you buy a car from an individual or dealership only later to discover that the odometer has been tampered with, you are protected by law. Even before you sue, some dealers will want to make things right by cutting you a check or taking the car back.
Dealers go to great lengths to ensure that cars in their inventory don’t have rolled-back mileage due to the legal consequences. But don’t take their word for it. Bad players thrive in seemingly trustworthy circles.
How Common is Rollback?
Findings from NHTSA research indicate that over 450,000 used cars sold annually have falsified odometer readings. It’s equivalent to 3.47 percent of all secondhand automobiles traded in the market. Putting things in perspective, there's almost one in every 29 chances you may fall victim to odometer rollback fraud.
There are no two ways: individuals and dealerships must correctly state the mileage of their vehicles in the title during the transfer. They should also disclose any repairs, replacements, or adjustments to the odometer.
Any individual caught tampering with the odometer is liable for the crime. Furthermore, if the buyer finds out they were deceived, they can take legal action against them or ask for compensation.
Nearly half a million vehicles (450,000) are sold annually with manipulated odometer readings (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration).
How to Detect Rollback?
Many times, odometer rollback goes undetected, as scammers are also smart. They may only take a few thousand miles off the car, for instance, from 200,000 to 150,000, and the condition will still seem the same. That makes it paramount to be suspicious of any car you evaluate.
There are many ways to detect mileage rollback. We’ll discuss three main methods as follows:
- Getting a history report;
- Running a computer diagnostics;
- Performing a physical inspection, checking for signs of excessive wear.
Let’s get to it:
Run a FAXVIN Report
When you check mileage by VIN on FAXVIN, you get a report that shows past odometer readings as reported when the registration was changed or renewed. The mileage checker also calculates the average mileage per year and per owner, and gives an estimate relative to other cars. In the check mileage report, you also get notified about a potential rollback if detected.
We also encourage you to get the current odometer reading and ensure it matches the history. Everything should be logical. For instance, there may be an issue if the last recorded mileage two years ago was 50,000, but the current mileage is only 55,000 for a car driven daily from the owner’s account.
The mileage VIN check report is a must-have for other reasons. It offers a wealth of insights, for instance, if there are any outstanding liens, accidents, or damages. Getting this report will be very beneficial to secure the best deal.
Curious about what the odometer history check looks like? The following sample table show the disclosed odometer readings from prior registration records. Note that odometer disclosures take place when the car changes ownership or during renewals:
On modern cars, rolling back the mileage is as easy as changing the readings shown on the instrument cluster. But fortunately, the real figure may be stored in other electronic control units in the vehicle. Sometimes it is in odd places like the seat memory or parking assistant module.
Running computer diagnostics involves reading the mileage stored in other ECU devices. These readings should be close to what you can see on the instrument cluster, as they are not synchronized in real-time.
Still, the odometer readings are not 100% accurate, along with the readings you get from the ECUs and instrument clusters. A slight change, like upgrading to bigger wheels, can interfere with odometer readings. You still review other data to get a more accurate picture, such as service records and reported readings from a previous odometer check.
Check the Car Yourself and for Free
There are more techniques you can implement to spot a car with an artificial low odometer reading. Keep in mind the need to investigate further by ordering an odometer check with VIN.
Did you know that the windshield can give you an indication of the vehicle's mileage? If you're driving at high speed, road debris such as stones and sand slowly chip at the glass, resulting in tiny dots that eventually impair visibility - especially when facing direct sunlight.
After the first 30,000 - 50,000 miles, you can spot some isolated chip marks. By the 100,000 mark, more spots appear, along with traces of wiper blades. Brush marks become more etched at 200,000, and small chips become more concentrated. Large chips are not so common, but if several are present, this may indicate a relatively high mileage.
The brake pedal is a good indicator of wear and tear, as it is rarely replaced as the car ages. Mostly made of rubber, it wears down with contact. At 100,000 miles, some signs of wear should be visible. The pedal surface may smoothen until the indentations are gone with higher mileage.
The surface of the steering wheel will wear out with contact from the driver’s hands. Just confirm that the wear pattern matches up with the mileage. For instance, it’s reasonable to expect a car with low mileage to have a fairly new steering wheel. That is why it is good to use a mileage checker.
Seats are necessary when judging a car's age. If the fabric or leather is worn down, sunken in, or the seat adjustment mechanism is broken, it indicates that the vehicle has probably seen better days. The main seat that you’ll check is the driver’s seat. That said, some models have seats that wear down too quickly. You can research it to see if it’s a factor.
- Odometer fraud is the illegal practice of rolling back a vehicle’s odometer to make it appear as though it has fewer miles than it actually does.
- Odometer fraud is estimated to cost American car buyers more than $1 billion yearly (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration).
The motivation to make a few extra bucks is alluring, even for the average seller. And with a quick Google search and a few bucks, they can order a tool to roll back the mileage. You, on the other hand, end up with a less desirable car.
So, always investigate what you’re getting into to avoid nasty surprises. We’ve recommended ordering a history report and performing a thorough in-person inspection. As part of the inspection, you should also run a vehicle diagnosis, checking for the mileage stored on ECU devices and any hidden alert codes like "check engine.” Follow these tips, and you’ll have a secure and reliable vehicle.