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Digital rollbacks: Millions of cars have false mileage on the odometer

InvestigateTV confirms vehicles with suspected rollbacks for sale on used car lots

By: Rachel DePompa

Originally Published: April 25, 2019

(InvestigateTV) – There’s a hidden danger on the roads – one that’s illegal and potentially putting families at risk: rolled-back odometers.

Experts say vehicle odometers are easier than ever to rollback.

“Our research shows there are now 1.6 million cars that are on roads across the country that have an odometer rolled back, and that’s costing consumers millions of dollars,” said Chris Basso, who works with Carfax, a company that provides vehicle history reports.

In a demonstration with Carfax, an odometer on a 2006 Chevy Silverado with 230,323 miles was tampered with in less than 30 seconds. A technician with an inexpensive electronic device was able to erase nearly 100,000 miles of wear, tear and history, leaving the Silverado with 130,483 miles.

Watch the video below to see a demonstration of an odometer rollback and hear how that affects the value of a vehicle.

“You’re simply taking a device that hacks into the car’s computer. You could take a hundred thousand miles off a car and artificially inflate the value of it by thousands of dollars, and you’re ripping people off,” Basso said.

Those rollbacks can be dangerous and expensive for consumers.

“You’ve got older parts that you think the car has that could break down sooner than you expect,” Basso said. “If that car’s being driven and those parts break down, then not only are the passengers of that vehicle in possible danger, but everyone else on the road too.”

Consumer finds her car appears to have rolled-back odometer

“The nightmare car!” – that’s what Erika Baez calls her BMW. “Wish we never bought it.”

She got it a few months ago. It was supposed to be a fun weekend car for the Midlothian, Virginia mom.

“I just got rid of a Mercedes that had a convertible. And all the kids just loved the convertible, so I figured, let’s get one with less miles. The other one had about 200,000 miles,” Baez said.

She bought her 2008 BMW at a dealer in northern Virginia just outside of Washington, D.C. for $9,500. The mileage on the odometer showed 136,507.

But Baez did not believe that mileage. She said her car had a laundry list of problems.

“There’s a check engine light issue. There’s a tire issue. At first it had a hard time just turning on and off. The starter and the alternator was messed up.” Three days after she got the car, she said a tire nearly fell off.

A dealer handed her a $5,000 tab to fix all the problems.

Then she saw an AutoCheck report. There was a notification on the report of a potential rollback.

The report showed the car with 44 miles, then 44,000 a few years later. Then it showed the car with 218,000. Now, her car is currently missing 100,000 of those miles.

The documents above show the mileage Erika Baez thought was on her car because of her odometer disclosure statement (left) versus what AutoCheck documents show is her likely actual mileage. The AutoCheck (right and center) show when a rollback likely happened. (Graphic Illustration/InvestigateTV)

“I would never think a digital odometer could actually have a rollback,” Baez said.

She said she has learned an important lesson from seeing the reports.

“Definitely make sure you get the AutoCheck and the Carfax report. I would never buy another used car without having both reports from both sides,” Baez said.

Consumer attorney John Gayle is helping Baez fight to make things right.

“It’s really scary. Unless you as a buyer of a car are suspicious or are careful you’re never going to know,” Gayle said.

Unfortunately, he’s seen situations like this before.

“If someone sold that vehicle with the rolled-back odometer to the dealer, and even if the dealer didn’t know, you can go after the person up the line for [three times the actual] damages or $10,000 and all legal fees.”

Rolling back an odometer is a federal crime.

“We simply have to show that the person up the line or that the dealer was aware of this odometer, this mileage issue and didn’t disclose it or misrepresented it,” Gayle said.

Undercover producer checks on suspected rollbacks

InvestigateTV found several cars for sale at several different dealers with potential odometer rollbacks. To confirm a suspected odometer rollback in Richmond, VA, an undercover producer went to a used car lot and talked to a salesperson about a 2004 Ford Explorer. When the producer asked about the year of the SUV indeed being 2004, the salesperson, who InvestigateTV will not name because he did nothing wrong, responded, “Yes, sir. So really for 15-years-old, it’s pretty good miles. Well-below average anyway.”

The Ford Explorer pictured was suspected of having an odometer rolleback. An undercover producer confirmed the mileage on the odometer was lower than the CarFax reported indicated it once was. (InvestigateTV)

The salesperson told the producer several times the miles were guaranteed – it was a selling point. “I mean 200,000 miles it’s in pretty good shape, like very good shape even,” the salesperson said. The producer took several photos, including of the Vehicle Identification Number.

The salesperson gave the producer an AutoCheck report that clearly showed no odometer problems on the vehicle. But there were also no odometer readings reported at all between 2005 and 2017. However, a Carfax report clearly showed what was missing: The Ford Explorer had 268,000 miles in 2014 and 290,000 in 2015. The miles dropped by nearly 100,000 in October of 2016 before the dealer bought it six months later.

The Ford Explorer in Virginia that an undercover producer checked was advertised with just more than 200,000 miles (top). However, the CarFax report indicated a possible odometer rollback because records indicated the SUV had nearly 300,000 miles at its last state inspection. (Graphic Illustration/InvestigateTV)

InvestigateTV reached the car dealership owner by phone, and he said, “Thank you for letting me know. We’ve been in business 37 years. We take this seriously, and we are glad we haven’t sold the vehicle. We are going to pull it from our lot, report the mileage issue and send it to auction.”

Tips for checking cars before you buy

“It’s critical for consumers to have their wits about them and to do some research,” Gayle said.

Here’s how you can protect yourself: Ask for both a Carfax and AutoCheck report. Compare them. Get an independent mechanic you trust to look over the vehicle. If you think the mileage sounds too low, trust your instinct, be skeptical, and ask questions. “The wear and tear on the inside of the car can be an indicator for odometer fraud: The steering wheel, how it’s worn. The pedals. The brake and the gas. The shift knob,” Basso said.

Basso also said you should check the tires for wear and look at the paint job for a lot of nicks or rust. “You can take a look at the exhaust see how much rust is underneath there. That’s something that the average person may be able to tell,” Basso said.

Carfax offers a free odometer fraud check for consumers online.

“I’m completely blown away,” Baez said, about how easy it is to check. She said she’ll never make this mistake again.

“Your due diligence is so important especially with a used car that’s no longer under warranty or anything like that. Lesson learned,” Baez said.

If you do suspect your mileage has been tampered with you should contact your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, which will investigate.

Graphics and illustrations by Jamie Grey.