How to Detect Odometer Fraud

When you buy a vehicle, one of the influencing factors is how many miles are on the odometer. That simple number can give a good indication of several items including:

  • An indication of upcoming maintenance and repairs
  • How well the vehicle was looked after
  • If warranty is still applicable on the car
  • The life expectancy of the vehicle
  • The value of the car

Rolling back an odometer is done with the intention to defraud a purchaser. It gives the appearance of a less-used vehicle with more life left in it and fewer repairs on the horizon than it actually true.

Before digital odometers were introduced a few decades ago, it was a real concern whether an odometer had been tampered with.Inside the odometer, there were small plastic gears that could be disassembled and re-positioned so the value on the odometer was significantly reduced. Other times, the speedometer cable could be disconnected and run in reverse on a power drill to count the miles backwards.

Auto manufacturers combated this problem by creating safeguards in the odometer. On some, if the numbers were tampered with, it would be nearly impossible to make the numbers line up straight again, making it clear the odometer was rolled back. On others, the speedometer cable was designed to count the miles up whether the cable was turned in the forward or reverse direction. And finally, odometers were almost completely changed to digital readouts, which were thought to be foolproof.

With advances in technology, access to information is astounding. The process to roll back the odometer on cars equipped with digital readouts is available with a simple Google search and the tools needed to complete it are readily available online or at an auto parts store.

Detecting odometer fraud on modern vehicles with a digital odometer is more difficult but a few simple checks can assist you in detecting a potential rollback.

Method 1 of 4: Analyze the vehicle usage

Step 1: Consider the year of the vehicle and the current mileage.

  • An average vehicle in North America accumulates approximately 12,000 miles per year.

  • If the mileage is substantially less than 12,000 miles per year, there may be cause for concern.

Step 2: Consider the seller’s habits.

  • If the vehicle appears to be a business vehicle with decals or signs yet the mileage is abnormally low, it may have had its odometer tampered with.

  • If the seller is elderly as opposed to a busy parent or businessperson, it may be understandable that the mileage is not as high as average.

Method 2 of 4: Check the vehicle’s condition

Not every vehicle that has a rough interior and low miles is a case of a rolled-back odometer. Sometimes it is simply a case of the interior being neglected, but combined with other issues may be cause for concern.

Comparing old and new pedal

Step 1: Check for abnormal wear on the brake and gas pedals.

  • The brake pedal sees the most amount of force and wear almost all the time. If the mileage on the car is low - less than 60,000 miles, for example - and the brake pedal’s rubber pad is nearly worn through, it can indicate a potential issue.

  • If the previous drivers drove in stop-and-go traffic predominantly, pedal wear will not be a clear indication of tampering.

examining car floor for wear

Step 2: Check the carpets and seats for excessive wear.

  • Vehicle mats and carpets are quite durable and take tens of thousands of miles before they display wear.

  • If there are “heel spots” on the driver’s side floor mat or carpet yet the odometer seems too low for such wear, consider the possibility that the odometer has been tampered with.

Step 3: Check the body of the vehicle.

  • If there seems to be more paint fade or body damage than you’d come to expect from the year and mileage on the car yet the odometer is low, think about the possibility that the odometer has been rolled back.

using Lincoln

Step 4: Check the tread depth on the tires.

  • Insert a penny into the sipes or lines in the tire with Lincoln’s head pointed downwards.

  • If the top of Lincoln’s head is exposed, there is less than 2/32nds of an inch left of tire tread.

  • That measurement is consistent of tires on a passenger vehicle with 40-60,000 miles on the odometer.

  • If the tires are original, worn down to 2/32nds, and the odometer is less than 30,000 miles, it may be possible the odometer has been tampered with.

Method 3 of 4: Check the paperwork

person looking through documentation

Step 1: Check the service history documentation.

  • Ask the seller for their maintenance records. Each receipt should have the mileage and date in it.

  • Follow the service history to see if the current mileage makes sense according to the seller’s previous track record of usage.

  • Take note of unusual gaps in dates or mileage which may be consistent with odometer tampering, or it may also indicate another alarming issue of poor maintenance habits.

ask for original certificate of title

Step 2: Ask to see the original Certificate of Title.

  • If the seller has a photocopy on hand, request to see the original title. Compare the recorded mileage on the title with the current odometer reading to see if there are irregularities.

  • If all that is available is a photocopy, make sure the mileage reading is clearly legible and the font is consistent with the rest of the document.

  • Out-of-state sales or new certificates of title can indicate a condition known as title-washing, where branded titles or odometer discrepancies are masked due to slight differences in state titling requirements.

checking for odometer sticker

Step 3: Check for an odometer replacement sticker.

  • If the odometer was faulty and replaced at some point in the vehicle’s history, it is legally required that the odometer reading be recorded on a decal that is displayed on the vehicle.

  • The decal may be installed on the driver’s door pillar, on the instrument cluster, in the glove box, or another visible spot.

  • A decal has to be used if the new odometer that was installed could not be set to the previous mileage on the faulty odometer.

Method 4 of 4: Have a mechanic inspect the car

It can be difficult to determine if the odometer has actually been rolled back or not. Sometimes your senses tell you that something doesn’t seem quite right but you can’t identify what exactly is setting that feeling off.

If you suspect the odometer has been rolled back or want to confirm that the condition of the car is in line with the odometer, request to have a mechanic perform a pre-purchase inspection, which YourMechanic would be happy to do for you.

If the seller refuses to allow a mechanic to look over the car, it is a telltale sign that there is something amiss about the transaction. Whether the odometer has been rolled back or there is some other shady business happening, you should be confident in your decision to walk away from the purchase.


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