Odometer fraud is a surprisingly widespread phenomenon in the United States, and one growing alarmingly fast. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates more than 450,000 vehicles are sold with incorrect mileage readings every year in America. Consumers use odometer readings to determine a vehicle’s mileage, and from that inferring the wear and tear on the vehicle and thusly its relative value. Without accurate readings, a consumer can’t make an informed decision; something auto fraudsters count on.
An odometer is defined as an instrument used for measuring the distance traveled by a vehicle. Odometers were used as far back as ancient Rome, when Alexander the Great’s advisors used a primitive mechanical odometer to measure the distances traveled by him during his reign. Scholars in ancient China independently invented their own early odometer during the Han Dynasty.
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Odometers used in automobiles started as gear driven devices that turned in conjunction with the vehicles’ wheels. This let the odometer record the number of miles driven by the vehicle permanently, as opposed to the easily resettable “trip odometer” that can be reset with a button-push. This makes the odometer a permanent record of the vehicle’s miles driven. As vehicles collect wear and tear over time and miles driven, looking at the odometer reading can give a consumer a general idea of the vehicle’s condition immediately.
A high-mileage vehicle can be cleaned thoroughly and have cosmetic work done, but refurbishing the damage done by hundreds of thousands of road miles can be both time consuming and expensive. Bad actors looking to defraud customers will instead alter the odometer reading, making a high mileage beater look like a garage kept pristine vehicle. This is a crime in the United States and other countries, costing American car buyers more than $1 billion annually.
Before the advent of digital odometers, criminals would remove the odometer from its housing in the vehicle and physically roll the miles back. Modern cars use digital odometers which, in some cases, can be even easier to tamper with. Electronic tools that plug into a vehicle’s on-board diagnostic ports can alter the odometer reading. Given the odometer reading’s importance when pricing a used vehicle for sale, accuracy in these readings is paramount. As such the U.S. government enshrined them into law, and prosecutes odometer fraud as felony crimes.
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The ruth in Mileage Act (TIMA) is a federal law requiring motor vehicle sellers to provide an odometer disclosure statement at the time of sale or transfer of ownership. An odometer disclosure is one of the many forms consumers sign when buying a vehicle; it is the seller stating clearly how many miles are on the vehicle as a matter of legal record. The law requires odometer 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.
The law provides exceptions from odometer disclosures for certain vehicle types, 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.
Federal rules limiting older vehicles from requiring odometer statements changed on Jan. 1, 2011. This means a vehicle will not be exempt from odometer disclosure statement requirements until the vehicle is 20 years old. For example, a 2011 model year vehicle won’t be exempt from odometer disclosure until 2031.
Federal fraud convictions can include fines up to $10,000 for each violation, with each altered odometer counting as a separate instance. A conviction also opens the perpetrator to civil lawsuits from anyone they defrauded, with the law allowing damages three times the amount 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.
A recent case of odometer fraud involved the Luna family of San Antonio, Texas. Nepthali and Devon Luna admitted to selling high mileage vehicles with incorrect odometer readings. Court records show Devon Luna would purchase high mileage vehicles and then alter their odometers to show much lower readings, therefore inflating the sale price.
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.
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Consumers suspecting odometer fraud should check for signs of wear uncharacteristic of vehicles with lower total mileage. One often overlooked sign of wear is the brake pedal: if the brake pedal is worn down to the metal or has been replaced with an after-market pad, that car might be older than you’ve been lead to believe. Other often overlooked signs of wear include brake calipers, spark plugs and wires, and even the steering wheel itself.
If you suspect you’ve fallen victim to odometer fraud, you should immediately notify your insurance company. If you are financing the vehicle, you should also notify your bank or finance company. You should also contact a qualified fraud attorney in your area as you can likely pursue an odometer fraud case to recoup your losses.
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.
You deserve better than spending hard-earned money on a vehicle that’s been tampered with to look more expensive than it actually is. Buying a car without knowing its true age can blindside you with unforeseen repairs and breakdowns. The fraud experts at Allen Stewart P.C. will fight on your behalf and make sure you get the justice you deserve. The sooner you act, the better your chances of getting a judgement in your favor. Don’t wait; contact Allen Stewart P.C. today. Your initial consultation is entirely free.