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Auto FraudThe Legal Skinny About Odometer Fraud


Turning back the clock might be good for nostalgia, but for selling a motor vehicle, turning back the clock is a blatant act of fraud. We are talking about odometer tampering, which represents one of the oldest forms of deception used by auto dealers into tricking customers to shell out more money than they should.

According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), auto dealerships sell more than 450,000 motor vehicles each year that have inaccurate odometer readings. The NHTSA estimates the crime of odometer tampering costs consumers nearly $1 billion per year. Odometer fraud is such a problem that the NHTSA has created four regional offices that report to the Office of Odometer Fraud Investigations.

The Financial Implications of Odometer Tampering

Cars that have higher mileage readings sell at lower prices than vehicles that have lower mileage readings. It is one of the economic absolutes of the automotive industry. Even a minor lower adjustment of 2,000 miles can raise the value of a car significantly. However, a majority of odometer tampering cases involve the rollback of tens of thousands of miles, which increases the price of a car by thousands of dollars. Odometer rollback cases can cover virtually any type of vehicle, but it is usually high-priced automobiles that have a few years on them that unethical dealers like to use for odometer tampering.

Rolling back the mileage on an odometer has other financial ramifications in addition to a higher sticker price. If you finance a vehicle that the dealer rolled back the mileage, you have to explain the accurate mileage reading to the lender. The accurate mileage reading might translate into a higher interest rate on your car loan. Your auto insurance company might raise your monthly premium since mileage is one of the factors that determine insurance rates.

Protecting Against an Odometer Rollback

Although it can be difficult to notice an odometer rollback, there are a few signs that should raise one or more red flags.

  • The mileage reading on the title differs from the current odometer reading
  • The mileage on the vehicle’s inspection records differs from the current odometer reading
  • The numbers on the odometer gauge are not aligned properly
  • Tires show more tread loss than they should for the mileage reading
  • Wear and tear on the vehicle indicates the mileage reading is inaccurate
  • Vehicle history report describes a much older automobile

How to Handle Odometer Fraud

Despite numerous websites consumers can access for vehicle history reports, odometer tampering remains a costly problem for California car buyers. If you believe a car dealer is trying to scam you by selling a vehicle that has a tampered odometer, you have several options to address this type of auto fraud.

Although it might seem like the right thing to do, contacting the local police department is not how you should address odometer fraud. Instead, refer to the federal statute that makes odometer tampering a felony offense that generates a private cause of action. Granting a private cause of action means you have the right to file a civil lawsuit against a car dealership for rolling back the miles on a car’s odometer. If you win a lawsuit filed against an auto dealership for odometer tampering, you might recover $10,000 or treble damages, whichever is the higher amount. Filing a civil lawsuit gives you a better chance of receiving justice because federal prosecutors rarely file criminal charges for odometer tampering.

If you want to file an odometer fraud claim against a car dealer, contact the NHTSA Vehicle Safety Hotline at 1-888-327-4238. You can also contact the Office of Odometer Fraud Investigations at the following address:

Office of Odometer Fraud Investigations

U.S. Department of Transportation /NHTSA, Room W55-301

1200 New Jersey Avenue SE.

Washington, DC, 20590.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) handles odometer tampering complaints at the state level. You can access the DMV website to start a claim.

Speak with a Consumer Protection Lawyer

Exploring your legal options should include consulting with a California consumer protection attorney who understands how to prove odometer tampering. Your lawyer will schedule a free initial consultation to review your case that includes analyzing evidence that might demonstrate the rolling back of an odometer. If your attorney feels strongly that you have a convincing case, your lawyer will file the paperwork required to initiate the civil lawsuit process.

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