Odometer fraud is a serious problem, a problem only getting worse for American car buyers. A car’s odometer reading gives a consumer a baseline expectation of the car’s general condition. If the odometer reads incorrectly, however, the consumer can’t make an informed decision. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates more than 450,000 vehicles sold every year contain tampered odometers. This can cost a consumer thousands of dollars if the vehicle needs more maintenance than its mileage would suggest.
Consumers looking for used cars should be aware of odometer fraud and take actions ahead of time to protect themselves. Even as odometer fraud increases across the country, savvy consumers can still spot signs of characteristic wear and tear belying a vehicle’s advanced age and usage.
Vehicle odometers used to be built with systems of interlocking gears that measured a vehicle’s wheel rotation and counted miles traveled. These devices could be manipulated by bad actors either by physically removing the odometer and changing the reading by hand or with special tools. These processes left behind telltale signs of odometer fraud for eagle-eyed consumers, including misaligned speedometer numbers or irregular spacing between the numbers.
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These days vehicle odometers are digital, which were initially considered more difficult to modify and tamper with. However, criminals found a way. Fraudsters eventually twisted technology to their own ends and found ways to change the mileage reading even on digital odometers. Criminals can still remove the odometer from the vehicle, except now instead of changing the digits by hand they connect it to a computer. Other methods include replacing chips inside the odometer with the same chips from similar vehicles or connecting a computer to the vehicle’s on-board digital diagnostic ports and accessing the odometer remotely.
What makes this worse than falsifying the mileage in an analog odometer is the relative ease with which it can be done. Criminals can access some odometers without ever cracking into the vehicle’s innards, with tools bought online for less than $100. It can be more difficult to spot digital odometer fraud, though possible: if a vehicle’s odometer were removed, it may be misaligned from the rest of the instrument cluster. Fingerprint smudges on the inside of the instrument cluster console can also indicate potential odometer fraud.
Luckily, even as more vehicle manufacturers switch entirely to digital odometers, there still exists several ways to spot and avoid odometer fraud. One example is brake pedal wear. Over time the rubber on a brake pedal wears away from use. A vehicle with a supposedly low mileage with an almost bare metal brake pedal might have more miles on it than the odometer reads. Other components whose wear can indicate higher mileage include spark plugs, brake pads, rotors and calipers, and even the steering wheel itself.
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One method of spotting possible odometer fraud is finding service stickers inside the vehicle. Many oil change stations place stickers inside the vehicle somewhere indicating at what date or mileage the vehicle should return for its next service. Fraudsters can potentially overlook these stickers, or other evidence with the correct mileage such as maintenance records in the glove box.
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Used car buyers need to know odometer rollbacks are on the rise, and ways to protect themselves from getting scammed buying a vehicle with a tampered odometer. One way to avoid this is checking the vehicle’s historical mileage record. This is shown on the vehicle’s odometer disclosure statement, which the federal Truth in Mileage Act (TIMA) requires all vehicle vendors provide at the time of sale. It’s one of several forms consumers sign when buying a vehicle; this one states how many miles are on the vehicle as a matter of legal record. The federal law requires such disclosures for all passenger vehicles, pickup trucks, motor homes, motorcycles, and trucks with a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating less than 16,000 pounds that are less than ten years old.
TIMA allows exceptions for certain vehicles including vehicles 20 years or older, vehicles with Gross Vehicle Weight Ratings over 16,000 pounds, snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, vehicles that are not self-propelled, or in the case of a title transfer in which at least one of the registered owners is staying the same, except when the title submitted is from out of state.
The law changed on Jan. 1, 2011 making vehicles 20 years old or older exempt from odometer disclosure statement requirements. For example, a 2011 model year vehicle won’t be exempt from odometer disclosure until 2031.
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Those considering tampering with a vehicle’s odometer or selling a tampered vehicle should know odometer fraud is a federal crime. Odometer fraud convictions can come with fines up to $10,000 for each violation, with each altered odometer counting as a separate instance. A conviction also leaves the perpetrator open to civil lawsuits from anyone to whom they sold a tampered vehicle, with the law allowing damages three times the number of actual damages or $10,000, whichever is greater. Those found guilty of odometer fraud can also be sentenced to three years in federal prison.
Two Texas men found this out the hard way in April 2021. Nepthali Luna and Devon Luna of San Antonio pleaded guilty to conspiracy to make false odometer statements and commit securities fraud after they admitted to selling high mileage used vehicles with incorrect mileage readings on the vehicles’ odometers titles and odometer disclosure statements. Court filings show the men purchased high-mileage vehicles and then caused those vehicles to show false, lower mileage before selling them for inflated prices.
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The Lunas admitted, according to the DOJ statement, to selling 225 vehicles with “rolled back” odometers resulting in consumer losses surpassing $550,000. Nepthali Luna faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison, while his son Devon faces 10 years for securities fraud and three years for making false odometer statements.
If you bought a used car and suspect odometer fraud, you should immediately inform your insurance company. If you are currently financing the car, notify your bank or finance company as well. You should then seek out a qualified, licensed attorney and talk to them about potentially filing a fraud claim. Consumers are protected at the federal level by the Federal Odometer Law, also known as 49 U.S.C Chapter 327. The law, passed in 1972, prohibits the “disconnection, resetting, or alteration of a motor vehicle’s odometer with intent to change the number of miles indicated thereon.”
State laws also protect consumers in their respective states. Texas consumers, for example, are protected by the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act (DTPA). The act, signed into law in 1973, allows consumers to fight back against false or misleading business practices and get compensation for damages. These malicious practices can include odometer tampering or odometer fraud.
The odometer fraud attorneys of Allen Stewart P.C. have the knowledge and experience needed to take the fight to odometer tamperers in court and get you the compensation you deserve. If you believe a used car vendor took advantage of you and sold you a car with far more miles on it than the mileage suggests, contact Allen Stewart P.C. today.