by Lawrence Herzog

Every year, more than 89,000 vehicles with tampered odometers reach the Canadian marketplace – at a cost to Canadians of more than $3.56 million according to estimates by a U.S.-based company called CarFax. South of the border, a 2002 U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study shows that each year more than 450,000 Americans will inadvertently buy a used vehicle with the mileage gauges rolled back. That makes tampering with odometers a $1.1-billion-a-year industry in the U.S. alone.

What’s perhaps even more surprising is that odometer fraud is most common with newer vehicles that have accumulated significant mileage over a short period of time, such as leased, rental and company cars. Most odometer fraud, in fact, is committed by wholesalers who buy fleets of used vehicles to sell to dealers.

U.S. officials estimate that more than half the late model lease return cars sold by leasing companies annually end up on car lots with reset odometers. The Ontario Motor Vehicle Industry Council (OMVIC) reports that vehicles with tampered odometers are often sold across Canada by “curbsiders,” unregistered car dealers who sell vehicles from parking lots and other public locations while masquerading as private sellers.

In the age of electronic digital odometer technology, this isn’t supposed to be happening. The old mechanical odometers made rolling back the dials a quick and easy affair, accomplished with simple tools such as picks, wires and screwdrivers, but modern technology was supposed to render odometer fraud obsolete. Instead, odometer tampering is now a nearly invisible crime — difficult to detect and difficult to prosecute.

As always, the incentive is easy money. The U.S. group Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety calculates that dealers pocket an additional 10 cents profit for each mile rolled back on a vehicle’s odometer. It may not sound like much, but the dollars quickly add up when dealing in hundreds of cars, with hundreds of miles or kilometres rolled back. The simplest method involves replacing the dashboard’s entire instrument panel.

Some rollback artists called clockers use a laptop computer and software to change the vehicle’s automated control systems, reprogramming its computer and editing the mileage at will. Odometer rollback techniques are also spelled out on a number of websites that sell re-programming kits. With the correct tools (and inexpensive ones at that), a crafty odometer spinner can erase many thousands of kilometres from a vehicle’s odometer within minutes.

While regulations vary from province to province, in Alberta the odometer reading must be recorded on the bill of sale, but that information has never been entered into a database and there is no requirement that the seller even be the registered owner. “The current system is like sand through the fingers,” says Scott Wilson, the Alberta Motor Association’s policy development and promotion manager.

Any attempt to alter a vehicle’s odometer reading for the purpose of increasing its value constitutes fraud and is punishable under the Federal Weights and Measures Act, the Canadian Criminal Code and Alberta’s Fair Trading Act, which could lead to fines of up to $100,000 and two years in jail. But let’s face it — any crafty fraud artist won’t tell the truth and so, unless something about the vehicle’s history comes to light, the chances of detecting the crime are very low.

Databases between one province and another don’t communicate well and there’s no cross-Canada database with a birth-to-death history of every vehicle in Canada. That’s a boon for rollback artists because it makes it easier for them to transport vehicles across provincial boundaries and sell them with altered odometers. Even if a vehicle has been proven to be the subject of odometer fraud, there’s no law requiring dealers to report its true state to other unsuspecting potential buyers.

AMA is pushing for a more rigorous method of odometer tracking and tamper proof odometers on vehicles. “The technology now exists so digital odometers cannot be reprogrammed,” Wilson reveals. “They retain the same odometer reading even if they are removed from the vehicle and re-installed. A federal standard requiring these types of odometers on all vehicles would reduce odometer tampering significantly.”

Potential signs of odometer tampering:

  • Dash screws loose or missing

  • Scratches in odometer area
  • Excessive wear in the interior, particularly in the driver’s area
  • Oil change labels inconsistent with the mileage on the odometer
  • Vehicle registration inconsistent with either mismatched vehicle identification numbers (VIN) and/or odometer readings
  • Heavy wear on door strikers, floor mats, carpets, gas and brake pedals that’s inconsistent with stated mileage
  • New tires — mismatched by size, type or brand
  • Parts replaced that would normally not need to be replaced on a low-mileage vehicle, including batteries, hoses and clamps, fan and air-conditioning belts

Protect yourself

Before you purchase a used vehicle, get it inspected by an independent mechanic. Don’t trust sales staff, safety certificates or mechanics affiliated with the dealer to verify the vehicle’s condition. Be sure the mechanic checks for wear consistent with the stated mileage.

Take the car’s serial or vehicle identification number (VIN) and request a Vehicle Information Report (VIR), which provides details on the status of the vehicle and the dates and places in Alberta it has been registered (up to the last seven) and any liens.

Do your math: on average, a vehicle owner racks up between 20,000 to 30,000 km per year. If the kilometres seem too low to be true, be sure to check out the car’s history. Be wary of a curbsider who won’t meet you at his home or who, when you call to ask about an advertised vehicle for sale, asks: “Which one?”

Write on the bill of sale a stipulation that your money will be refunded in full if you discover at any time that the vehicle has been subject to odometer tampering. Do not buy from dealers who write into the contract that they cannot guarantee the odometer reading of a used vehicle.

When you buy a vehicle, keep detailed service records in a notebook and, when it comes time to sell, you can present that to the next owner.

Source: AMA, Alberta Motor Vehicle Industry Council, Alberta RCMP

A version of this feature originally appeared in Westworld Alberta, AMA’s magazine to its members.

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