Odometer Tampering in Used Cars – How Do You Protect Yourself?

I remember watching the 1996 film Matilda as if it was just yesterday (dating myself). Like a normal child with intense fascination, I would rewind the movie until the tape burned through, watching the film over and over as if I couldn’t process the entirety of the information the first 12 times. Therefore, in my later years of life, I can remember the film scene for scene. During my years, one moment always stuck out to me. In it, Danny Devito’s character, a used car dealership owner, is tampering with the odometer of a car, moving the numbers backward.

In my naive brain, I wondered about the complexity of thieves and their efforts toward gaining an unlawful profit. From the sophisticated plans of movie bank robbers to the simplistic nature of lying about a car before selling it, there were so many avenues in which someone (anyone) could pull wool over the eyes of the innocent. A wolf in sheep’s clothing isn’t as impressive when sheep coats are sold on each corner.

Sell My Car Colorado, you’re rambling again.

Here’s the thing: thievery really does exist outside of Hollywood. Though we would like to see the good in everyone, it’s important to avoid being too naive during the day, especially when dealing with money transactions. Odometer tampering is a legitimate threat for those buying used cars. You may believe that you have found an outstanding deal, but there is a thief in your midst. The car with the outrageously low mileage and price is anything but.

As used car buyers (and sellers), how can you avoid getting scammed on odometer fraud? Is there any way to protect yourself?

More Common Than You’d Imagine

We hate to continue the cynicism (we truly do), but a warning needs to be screamed across the wide canyon of car buyers. If you are on this site, you are likely to be in the market for a used car. Even if you are selling your used vehicle to a site like ours, you are liable to turn around and buy one with the accumulated profit. At the end of the day, it’s difficult to live in the country without a working vehicle.

While it may seem like a farfetched concept, left to those with black masks and evil mustaches, odometer tampering and fraud is becoming more common than you’d imagine.

According to Carfax, there are almost 2 million vehicles currently on the road with incorrect odometers. That number is up 7% from 2021. Carfax went on to estimate that odometer tampering can cause the buyer to lose around $4,000 on the value of the vehicle, which does not include the unexpected maintenance from buying a car with more mileage than you initially thought.

One last disturbing fact: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimated that there’s a 3.5% chance that a car will have its odometer messed with in the first 11 years of its life. Therefore, keeping skeptical about amazing car deals is crucial when you are in the market for a used vehicle.

With the used car market in the state that’s in (with some used vehicles being worth more than the new version), you cannot be surprised and shell-shocked by sellers taking advantage of desperate buyers. There will always be someone unsavory ready to pounce on those unready. It’s the negative of human existence.

How to Protect Yourself From Odometer Tampering

We have scared you enough. Now you may be entirely skeptical during your used car hunt, afraid that any little notch or crack may be caused by thievery or deceit. Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear-cut way to see if an odometer has been tampered with. It comes down to looking into and understanding the history of the vehicle in question.

Here are some tips to help you avoid odometer fraud:

1. The Title Tells All

If a vehicle’s title is legitimate and intact, it should tell you everything you need to know about the vehicle. In a perfect world, the title is required to have the correct odometer reading on it and should be checked by the state’s DMV before approving the registration. Therefore, you should be able to see the odometer versus the title and trust the results.

Obviously, all things can be tampered with by the savviest of criminals. Therefore, keeping a close eye on the title and the discrimination between it and the odometer is important.

If the odometer mileage is significantly lower than the title, something is afoot. If the mileage number on the title is hard to read or scribbled out, something is fishy. These are two telltale signs that something has been tampered with.

If the mileage on the odometer is more than the title, that’s usually fine. A car can be driven well past its registration, making a difference in mileage likely. But, no criminal would give a car more mileage before selling it. So it doesn’t make sense for this to be some mischievous ploy.

Always ask to see the title before you purchase a vehicle. Not only will it give you a glimpse at the mileage, but it will tell you if the car has been salvaged in the past.

2. Check the VIN

A vehicle’s VIN number is like a permanent history. Everything from accidents to oil changes should be recorded under the vehicle’s VIN, giving the viewer an extensive look at every little thing the vehicle has gone through. If run correctly, the VIN should give you information on the vehicle’s true mileage, too.

Ask the seller to either provide a detailed car report (like Carfax) or give you the VIN number so you can check it yourself. Running the number will give you everything you need to know. Then, you can check the reported mileage versus the one on the odometer to check for tampering.

Keep an eye out for weird consistencies (or inconsistencies) in the report. Often, the mileage will be noted during major car events. If the mileage doesn’t change, stays the same, drops backward, or looks iffy, something may have been misreported or changed.

If the seller is unwilling to give you a detailed report or the VIN, run. Run fast. They are obviously hiding information from you about the used car.

We have a free VIN checker right here!

3. Check Stickers

When a vehicle gets an oil change (or any other sort of routine maintenance) the mechanic company will slap a sticker on the windshield. This sticker provides information for the time of maintenance, giving the driver an idea of when it needs to be redone. For example, an oil change sticker will often say the odometer reading in which the car needs to come back for another change.

Check and see if you can find any of these stickers on the windshield, glovebox, doorframe, or under the hood. They should tell you the mileage of the vehicle when it was repaired and the date of repair. Or, the sticker will tell you when it needs to return, which should not be far from the current odometer reading.

If the number on the sticker is more than the odometer, the mileage has been changed.

4. Dings or Dents Near the Odometer

This one is fairly simple, so we won’t harp on it for long.

If there are weird markings or scratches around the odometer, it’s possible something has been messed with. Ultimately, there isn’t much reason to be messing around with a vehicle’s meters. Any damage behind the steering wheel is strange. If you notice markings and have other suspicions, things may be awry.

5. General Wear and Tear

Overall, this tip goes for cars that claim to be new or semi-new.

If the seller is stating that the car is brand new or fairly new (let’s say under 50,000 miles), then look out for any noticeable age. A fairly new vehicle shouldn’t have a ridiculous amount of scratches, dents, or other body damage unless it was already in an accident. Furthermore, a new vehicle won’t have any (or little) interior blemishes. Dashboards shouldn’t be cracked by the sun and leather shouldn’t be faded. These are obvious signs of a car not matching its apparent age.

Tires are noticeable, too. If the car is close to new, the tires should be close to new, too. Check them for obvious wear and lowered tread.

If the car looks significantly older than its odometers would suggest, questions should certainly be raised.

6. Trust Your Gut

The current state of the used car market is strange. The pandemic has caused prices to fluctuate like summer tides. It’s a volatile and concerning market in the early stages of post-pandemic America.

If you believe a deal is too good to be true, trust your gut instinct. Make sure to do research on what the car is going for before you go to look at it. Look up the Kelley Blue Book value of the vehicle and keep an eye on other sales in the area. If it seems way off course, it probably is.

Furthermore, if the dealer or private seller seems unsavory or untrustworthy, follow your instincts. If they are unwilling to answer questions, provide more information, or seem secretive, they probably have more up their sleeve. It may feel cynical, but when you’re talking about the price of vehicles, it’s worth being suspicious.

7. Take It to a Mechanic

We stretch this tip to any part of buying a used vehicle. Whether you are dealing with a private seller, dealership, or family friend, ask to take the vehicle to a mechanic (preferably one you trust). Though it may make the seller believe you don’t trust them, biting that social bullet is okay. We are talking about a significant amount of money. Don’t play around with it. Get a mechanic to give you their opinion on the car’s status.

Dealerships are usually okay with this, but private sellers can get tricky. The seller may believe you are attempting to pull something suspicious (rightfully so). Tell them they can take it to the mechanic and you will follow them in another car, giving you both comfort. You can talk to the mechanic together.

Mechanics will also be able to tell you if the vehicle’s wear matches up with the odometer. They have more in-depth tools and tricks to find the true value of the vehicle.

It’s reasonable that the seller may be weary of doing this, but they should eventually agree. If they have nothing to hide and seem friendly enough, they should be willing to go with you; if not, use your best judgment. If they are unwilling to take it (or let you take it) to a mechanic, but you still have a good feeling about the vehicle, they may just be overly cautious. That’s entirely okay.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to your research and gut feeling. If you feel like the vehicle is a good deal and have done your background checks, you are probably right.

What to Do If You Are Sold Through Odometer Tampering

If you notice that your vehicle has been tampered with after purchasing the vehicle, you may find yourself spiraling into a well of anger and aggression. You may quickly dial up your nearest lawyer, attempting to form a case of malpractice and theft.

Legally, what can you do if you are sold a car built on lies? Do you have a legal case?

Not really.

If you purchased the used vehicle from a private seller (think Craigslist or Facebook), then you cannot legally sue them for tampering with the odometer. The sale of the vehicle privately is considered as-is. This means the car was sold as-is at the time (even if tampered with). There is little-to-no legal recourse for lying during a private sale. Therefore, doing the correct research is necessary before finalizing the deal.

Dealerships, on the other hand, are a different story. There are “lemon laws” in place, protecting the buyer from any thievery or malpractice. Simply put: if a dealership sells you a vehicle and doesn’t tell you about issues they are aware of (including odometer rollbacks) you are legally entitled to a full refund.

If you bought the car from a dealership and later noticed odometer tampering (and can prove it), you can get your money back. If you bought it from a private dealer without a business license, you are at a loss unless the seller is willing to re-negotiate.