Latest News > Odometer Rollback Could Be Making a Comeback

Odometer Rollback Could Be Making a Comeback

by James M. Flammang on

A couple of decades ago, odometer rollback was common. Used-car shoppers were automatically suspicious of figures shown on any odometer. Nearly everyone seemed to have a friend or relative who’d bought a car that had gone far more miles than its odometer indicated.

Tampering with odometers used to be a strictly mechanical act, accomplished with simple tools. Back in the 1950s and ‘60s, unprincipled dealerships could even hire freelance odometer-tweakers. One long-time observer recalls seeing such a fellow at local dealerships, invariably lying on his back on the floor of a car, diligently employing the unique tools of his nefarious trade. “You’d only see his feet” sticking up, this observer remembers.

After the Truth in Mileage Act of 1986 was enacted, including substantial penalties for violations, most folks thought odometer rollback would evaporate. When electronic odometers first appeared, odometer rollback seemed like a vestige of the past.

Now, in 2011, dubious odometer readings are reappearing. “Odometer-mileage programming (odometer rollback) devices [are] being used to fraudulently manipulate vehicle mileage,” writes Joe Overby in Auto Remarketing magazine. Furthermore, “devices used to perpetuate the fraud can be purchased inexpensively,” often over the Internet.

David Sparks, director of the Office of Odometer Fraud Investigation at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), concurs that odometer rollbacks appear to be experiencing a revival. “Not so many years ago,” Sparks told Auto Remarketing, “tampering with an electronic odometer required significant knowledge and skill.” Now, “illicit programming devices require virtually no electronic skills and are quite simple to use.”

Vehicle components may even be removed and tampered with at a workbench, rather than “on the car.” Otherwise, NHTSA reports, “handheld programming devices are plugged into the vehicle’s onboard diagnostics port and the procedure is completed in less than two minutes.”

Odometer rollback is an issue not only for retail customers, but for auto auctions and the wholesalers who purchase cars for resale. No one–whether legitimate dealer or ultimate owner–wants to be stuck with a car that’s traveled much farther than its odometer indicates.

Frank Hackett, executive director of the National Auto Auction Association, told Auto Remarketing that tampering will “provide a fraudulent benefit to the ultimate buyer,” who thinks he’s getting a low-mileage vehicle and pays an appropriate price for that bonus. Tools that can accomplish this wicked act actually are produced for manufacturers, to correct service issues, but they can be obtained by unscrupulous persons. Odometer “codes are most likely being hacked,” Hacket advised, using algorithms developed by the manufacturers for legitimate purposes.

Why do they do it? Mainly, to increase profits. Lower-mileage cars bring far better prices. Reports also have surfaced of such devices being used to “alter” leased cars, and as part of fraudulent warranty claims.

NHTSA’s Sparks advises both dealers and retail customers to make use of vehicle history reports, which show a trail of odometer readings for a specific vehicle.