by Armando Martinez

Are you interested in purchasing a used vehicle from a private party on an online platform like Craigslist? If so, there's no doubt you're excited about starting your search. But there are certain risks you must protect yourself from when buying a used vehicle. One substantial risk in particular is vitally important to consider: odometer fraud.

No one wants to be a victim of odometer fraud. So you may wonder: What is odometer fraud, and how can I detect and avoid it? What should I do if I become a victim of odometer fraud? Read on to find the answers to these questions.

What Is Odometer Rollback Fraud?

Odometer rollback fraud happens when a car's odometer is tampered with to make it look like the vehicle has fewer miles than it actually does. This type of fraud may involve either physical tampering with the odometer or setting it to a lower number.

Fraudsters can tamper with both mechanical and digital odometers. Mechanical odometers usually consist of a wheel with a rotating gear that clicks as the wheel turns, recording the distance a vehicle travels. They have been around for centuries and are still used in many vehicles and motorcycles today.

Digital odometers, on the other hand, are electronic devices that are typically found in modern cars and trucks. They use advanced technology like GPS tracking or wheel sensors to measure the distance a vehicle travels and display the information in a digital format.

The primary motivation behind odometer rollback fraud is to make an older vehicle appear more attractive to potential buyers, allowing the seller to make more money on the sale.

Is Odometer Fraud Even That Common?

Though odometer fraud has been estimated to cost consumers billions of dollars annually in the past, it isn't that common today. Most sellers are honest and upfront about their vehicle condition and mileage, so private-party car sales are typically safe. However, it's still important to look out for odometer fraud to protect yourself.

How To Avoid Becoming a Victim of Odometer Fraud

There are several simple ways you can avoid becoming a victim of odometer fraud:

  1. Inspect the odometer statement on the vehicle title
  2. Let a mechanic determine if the vehicle's condition matches the mileage reading
  3. Get a vehicle history report
  4. Check the vehicle for old maintenance stickers
  5. Speak to the previous owners

Inspect the Odometer Statement on the Vehicle Title

Thankfully, it's not hard to spot an odometer rollback if you know what to look for.

First, you should always inspect the odometer disclosure statement — a legal declaration that states the actual mileage on a vehicle's odometer at the time of vehicle transfer and indicates whether or not it has accurate mileage — on the vehicle title.

Be especially wary of cars that have excessively high mileage for their age.

Let a Mechanic Determine if the Condition Matches the Mileage Reading

Another easy way to avoid odometer fraud is to get a mechanic inspection from a certified mechanic. The inspector can check for any signs of tampering or fraud and advise you not to proceed with the purchase.

They will also check other important systems on the vehicle, such as the brakes, suspension, and engine. With their expertise, they can gauge whether the vehicle's condition matches the mileage reading.

For example, they can inform you if there is unusually low or excessive wear and tear on major components like brakes and tires.

Get a Vehicle History Report

Carfax, Experian AutoCheck and other vehicle history reports can also be invaluable in detecting odometer rollbacks because they keep track of a car's mileage over time.

The vehicle history report contains vital details about the odometer reading and title information. It also contains other important data you can use to determine if the odometer reading matches the car's history, such as:

  • Manufacturing year
  • Accident history
  • Damages
  • Service records
  • Repair records
  • Registration information
  • Salvage/junk designation
  • State inspection results
  • Emissions testing results

Check the Vehicle for Old Maintenance Stickers

When purchasing a used car from a private party, one of the key ways to check for odometer fraud is to look for old maintenance stickers. Manufacturers commonly place a maintenance sticker inside the car with important information like:

  • Odometer reading
  • Date of service
  • Details of the appointment

When checking for odometer fraud, it's important to look for any inconsistencies with the sticker's records, such as significant changes in mileage without corresponding service dates. A consistent record of mileage and service dates over a long period can verify that the odometer has not been tampered with.

You can also use this time to check the odometer for numbers that are not aligned. This is an easy way to spot false odometer readings.

Speak to the Previous Owners

One of the easiest ways to check for odometer fraud is to speak to the previous owners of the vehicle. They can tell you more about the history of the car and any information that the current seller may not know.

It's also important to trust your gut. If something about the vehicle or the owner's words doesn't seem quite right, it's better to walk away than risk becoming a victim of fraud.

The Penalties Fraudsters Face According to Odometer Laws

Odometer fraud is a serious crime that is punishable by both state and federal penalties. It not only is illegal but also causes financial losses that can equal thousands of dollars for unsuspecting buyers.

Knowing the penalties associated with this crime can help protect you from being taken advantage of.

Federal Penalties

At the federal level, the Odometer Act of 1972 is in place to protect buyers from odometer fraud. Under this law, it is illegal to willfully and knowingly tamper with a vehicle's odometer, misrepresent a vehicle's odometer reading, or replace a motor vehicle's odometer with one that has different mileage readings.

Violating this law can result in an odometer fraud penalty of stiff fines and/or up to three years of imprisonment. The perpetrator may also be required to pay restitution for any financial losses incurred by victims of fraud.

State Penalties

Each state has its own laws governing odometer fraud. In general, these laws are similar to federal laws. State laws also make it illegal to intentionally misrepresent a vehicle's mileage or tamper with the odometer.

Penalties often include fines and/or jail time, as well as restitution payments to any victims of the fraud.

What To Do if You Suspect That an Odometer Has Been Altered

Though most private party car sellers are honest, you may suspect that you've become a victim of odometer fraud. Knowing how to detect odometer fraud and what to do if you verify it can help you protect yourself and other unsuspecting buyers.

1. Avoid the Purchase

First and foremost, you should not purchase the vehicle if you suspect that the odometer has been altered. Since tampering with an odometer is illegal, you may find yourself liable for any repairs or damages caused by the tampering if you purchase the vehicle.

2. Do Deeper Research

It's important to do your own research to determine whether odometer tampering has taken place. This could involve obtaining documents like maintenance records, service records, and other documentation related to the vehicle's ownership history.

If any of these records show a discrepancy between the odometer mileage and the mileage that was recorded at prior service intervals, the odometer has likely been tampered with.

3. Inspect the Odometer

You should also make sure to visually inspect the odometer itself. If you notice scratches or wear around the instrument cluster, this is another indication that someone has tried to alter the mileage. You may also want to take photographs of the rolled-back odometer for further evidence.

4. Report to the Authorities

Once you've completed your odometer fraud check and verified that tampering has taken place, you should contact your local law enforcement authorities to report the suspicious activity right away. Provide them with your evidence so they can investigate the matter further and press charges against the involved parties.

Ensuring a Safe and Secure Private Party Car Sale

Odometer rollback fraud is a serious crime that could cause you financial and vehicular issues. Thankfully, such fraud is not that common anymore, especially with the variety of online inspection tools available today. However, it's still important to protect yourself. By being aware of the risks and doing thorough research when purchasing a used vehicle, you can significantly reduce your chances of becoming a victim of odometer fraud.

Another excellent way to ensure a reliable and secure private party car sale is to use a private party car sale checkout solution. Such a platform will safely handle every part of the car purchase process, including vehicle history reports and documentation proving mileage. This will ensure that you can complete your purchase with ease of mind.

This article was written by Armando Martinez. Armando Martinez is among the nation’s experts on automotive titling, registration, DMV services and document operations. With nearly two decades of experience across a broad range of financial services functions and some of the largest names in auto, from Wells Fargo to Uber, Armando combines vision and ingenuity with a wealth of information so auto shoppers and sellers can learn from his experience.