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How to rule out deceptive rollback

Odometer tampering is an underrated risk every used car buyer must contend with. The United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that odometer fraud results in consumer losses of more than $1 billion annually. But many countries around the world are not putting enough effort to combat this threat in terms of legislating specific laws and informing the public.

But what is odometer fraud, anyway? Odometer fraud is a common scam wherein sellers roll back the mileage reading of a vehicle. This, of course, falsely inflates its value. When vehicles with more than 100,000 miles on them have their odometers clocked back to about half of its actual mileage, buyers end up paying a lot more than the vehicle’s real worth – not just in the buying price but also in the subsequent cost of repairs that the vehicle inevitably brings.

Make sure the next pre-owned vehicle you purchase doesn’t have a tampered odometer. It can be difficult but certainly not impossible to detect odometer tampering. Here are some practical ways to do it.

  • If you are importing the vehicle and can’t inspect it in person, make sure that the company you are importing from has a reliable odometer inspection service, preferably by an independent third party;
  • Check the title and ownership history documents to see if the mileage reading on the documents have been altered;
  • Check the service records and look for service stickers inside the door or under the hood that may give the actual mileage;
  • When buying from a private seller, check if the car is being sold immediately after a new title was issued – the new title could have been obtained because an alteration of the mileage reading was apparent on the old title;
  • If you could inspect the vehicle in person, look for loose screws or scratch marks around the dashboard and misalignment of the digits (especially the 10,000 digit);
  • Check for inconsistencies: vehicles with low mileage readings usually still have their original parts such as batteries, hoses and clamps, and they shouldn’t show heavy wear on the seats, arm rest and steering;

Digital Odometers

Many new cars have digital odometers and a lot of consumers believed that these modern mileage counters were a lot more tamper-proof than the mechanical kind. The sad fact is, given the right tools – a diagnostic computer and a software program readily downloadable from the net, for free – anyone can make the alteration in mere minutes. And what makes it even worse is that an electronic rollback is much harder to detect.

Be extra careful when buying used vehicles with digital odometers. The best way to ensure that they were not tampered with is by checking whether the mileage data on the vehicle’s ownership history report and service records correspond to its current mileage reading. A vehicle used privately runs at an average of 20,000 to 30,000 kilometers per year. If the odometer reading is inconsistent with its age, take extra care in scrutinizing its history.

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