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10 tips: Nab odometer roll-back scammers

It's the oldest trick in the used car book, and it still happens all the time.

By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNNMoney.com staff writer
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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- New technologies have made it harder for unscrupulous used-car sellers to get away with rolling back the miles on a car's odometer.

Sophisticated computer technology in cars and the availability of quick Internet-based searches for car ownership records have combined to make it harder to conceal a vehicles' true mileage.

But criminals are finding ways to meet those challenges, so odometer roll-back remains one of the most common scams around. The odometers on roughly 3.5 percent of all vehicles will be tampered with some time during the first 11 years of the vehicle's life, according to an April, 2002 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the most recent year for which an estimate is available.

Tampering with a vehicle odometer in order to conceal the car's actual mileage is a federal crime, but it can pay off by increasing the vehicle's value by thousands of dollars. The more the vehicle is worth, the more money can be made by shaving some miles off the odometer.

For example, a luxury car with 65,000 miles on it - about average for a four-year-old car -- is worth $2,000 to $3,000 more than one with 85,000 miles on it.

Taking those miles off is a relatively inexpensive proposition. A dishonest mechanic can remove the vehicle's instrument panel, which houses the speedometer and odometer, and replace them with instruments from a lower-mileage car.

In many vehicles, that's all that's needed. The lower odometer number from the other car will show up in the new car's dashboard. (In some cars, odometer data is stored elsewhere in the vehicle, said Martin Sanchez, a market analyst with Kelley Blue Book, so this trick won't work quite that easily.)

Go all the way back

Experts recommend running a check of the vehicle's state records so you can look for any suspicious changes in mileage.

It's not enough to simply look at the car's current title and registration. There's a chance that paperwork could also show a bogus mileage number. A Pennsylvania Department of Transportation employee was recently charged with taking bribes to accept falsified odometer readings that were entered into the state's official records, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Vehicles with records falsified in that case - 560 altogether - were ultimately sold to consumers in at least 25 states, according to the Justice Department.

Odometer mileage is recorded whenever a vehicle is registered with a state department of motor vehicles. It's also usually recorded when a vehicle is given a safety or emissions inspection.

Companies like CarFax and AutoCheck can provide you with a record of registrations and state-mandated inspections for any vehicle. A CarFax report will include information from any state in which the vehicle has ever been registered, according to the company.

Any suspicious change in mileage - for example, a mileage figure that's lower than one recorded earlier - will be "red flagged" on the report.

Finally, a potential buyer should look at the latest recorded mileage and compare it to what's on the car's odometer.

A word of warning: A records search is important, but it is not a replacement for a thorough vehicle inspection. Relatively minor accident damage or poor maintenance will not be revealed through a CarFax or AutoCheck search.

Besides looking at paperwork, the Department of Justice offers some additional clues to look for. If you see these on a car, you'll want to ask some questions.

  1. Look for loose screws or scratch marks around the dashboard. (Also look for fingerprints on the inside of the instrument panel's clear cover, advises Sanchez of Kelley Blue Book.)
  2. If the vehicle has an analog odometer, as opposed to newer digital readouts, check that the numbers are lined up straight. Pay special attention the 10,0000 digit.
  3. When test driving the car, notice if the speedometer sticks.
  4. Look for service stickers inside the door or under the hood that may give the actual mileage.
  5. Look in the owner's manual to see if there is a maintenance record there. Or see if pages that may have contained a maintenance record have been removed.
  6. If you are buying the car from a dealer, ask if a computer check has been done to look for warranty records.
  7. Ask to see the official title document. Look at it carefully to see if the mileage on the document has been altered.
  8. Look at the date the title was issued. Be suspicious if the vehicle is being sold shortly after the title was issued. A new title could have been issued simply to hide a mileage alteration.
  9. Look for signs of wear in "high touch" areas like the steering wheel, arm rests and pedals. Also, if any of these items looks brand new, as if it had been recently replaced, that may indicate an attempt to hide the vehicle's real age.
  10. Have a mechanic of your choosing inspect the vehicle. As part of that inspection, he should look for signs of tampering.

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