ARLINGTON, Va. (7News) — Scroll to the bottom of this story for 7News On Your Side tips for how to protect yourself from buying a car with a rolled-back odometer.
Forty million times a year, Americans buy a used car. They rely on the accuracy of the odometer to help them measure wear and tear on the vehicle.
“I bought a 2010 convertible Mustang from a used car outlet that was also a reputable dealer here in Virginia Beach,” said Cheryl Mansfield. “Within barely two months my air conditioning went out, the transmission went out, and something happened with what we later found out was second gear.”
Cheryl Mansfield bought her car with 47,000 miles on it. Or so she thought. In reality, her car had closer to 147,000 miles.
The odometer had been rolled back.
“We had no idea that it had that many miles on it,” said Mansfield.
To find out just how easy it is to roll back the miles on a modern digital odometer, we went to see Josh Ingle, owner of Atlanta Speedometer in Georgia.
He says most consumers believe that a digital odometer can’t be rolled back.
“Depending on the manufacturer, it’s pretty simple to do if you’ve got the right equipment,” said Ingle. “The equipment used to be $5,000 to $10,000, and some of these things are $300 now. You don’t have to disassemble anything. You can plug it into the car, change your number, unplug it. And outside of finding some written records somewhere, there’s no trace.”
For Cheryl Mansfield, it meant the value of her $14,000 Mustang convertible dropped to $1,000.
And she’s not alone.
According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, more than 450,000 vehicles a year are sold with odometers that have been rolled back, costing Americans more than a billion dollars.
It’s a federal crime that the agency is in overdrive to control.
“Odometer fraud is a covert crime,” said David Sparks, NHTSA’s Director of the Office of Odometer Fraud. “And so, it’s not like you come home and you know your house has been burglarized.”
Odometer fraud, you have to look for it to find it. And in my experience, said Sparks, wherever we look for it, we find it.
Beyond the loss of value, Sparks says high mileage vehicles can pose safety risks because owners assume the vehicle is in better condition than it actually is.
Josh Ingle showed us the hand-held device that makes it all so easy as he demonstrates a rollback. “I purchased this off of eBay,” he said. “It was a little bit less than $300. All you simply do is go down, choose your manufacturer. General Motors, this is a GMC Envoy. And there it is. We’ve got 203,000 miles. Let’s give it 600 miles.”
In less than 30 seconds, Ingle changed the mileage and in doing so, changed the value from $2,200 to more than $10,000.
According to Carfax, the vehicle history report service, the problem has been steadily getting worse.
In 2020 at least 30,800 odometers were rolled back in the Washington, D.C. region. That’s a 19% increase since 2019.
The federal government says it is prosecuting major cases, especially those involving criminal groups working on a large scale.
In victim Cheryl Mansfield’s case, she was one of 57 victims, and the perpetrator of her fraud, Lawson Basnight, went to prison. She receives small restitution checks but doubts they will ever cover her loss.
According to Ingle, some manufacturers do a better job than others of thwarting criminals.
“The Germans are doing a much better job at trying to defeat it,” said Ingle. “For instance, a Mercedes10 years ago will have the mileage stored essentially in three separate places. It’s not truly a mileage, but it’ll have a separate piece of code that has to check with another module to say, ‘Hey, I’m the correct part that was originally installed.’ But you can still change that information. It is more difficult.”
Ingles says manufacturers like Tesla make it very difficult for the odometer to be rolled back because the vehicles are connected and constantly keeping track of the car’s systems.
As for the future, experts say until all automakers produce connected vehicles or add redundancy systems to track accurate mileage, the numbers will keep rolling back.
TIPS ON HOW BEST PROTECT YOURSELF FROM BUYING A CAR WITH A ROLLED-BACK ODOMETER
1.Buy from reputable used car dealers
2.Get a pre-purchase inspection of the vehicle from a mechanic you trust. Tell him or her that you are particularly interested in seeing if there are any indications the mileage may have been rolled back.
While you might be tempted to skip this step and save the money, experts told us this is really the only way you will get an indication that the mileage may have been rolled back. How?
For starters, there will be wear and tear on the vehicle that isn’t consistent with the mileage. Some of this may be visible, like armrests, steering wheels, and floor mats (although these things can be pretty easily changed out). More important is what the mechanic will notice in the guts of the vehicle. Is there more wear on parts than what he or she would normally see with a vehicle of that make, model, and year with that amount of mileage?
3.Get a vehicle history report – but remember they are not fool-proof. Vehicle history reports rely on information being reported. All states do not have the same reporting requirements. Vehicle history reports can show an inconsistency in mileage and may even reveal it going up and down.
4.Remember: Vehicles 10 years or older are not subject to Federal Odometer Disclosure laws, meaning the seller does not have to sign documentation attesting to the accuracy of the vehicle’s mileage.
5.Ask for the documented service history of the vehicle. Typically, mileage is recorded when the vehicle is serviced. This provides a helpful glimpse into the vehicle’s history and mileage against which you can measure the existing mileage displayed in the car or truck.