Signs of odometer fraud on tens of thousands of Arizona cars

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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -

It’s a problem that can cost you thousands of dollars and potentially put you at risk on the road: nearly 30,000 vehicles in Arizona have signs of odometer fraud, according to new numbers from CARFAX.

The auto history company says across the country, there are nearly 200,000 new cases of odometer rollbacks each year. CARFAX estimates there are currently 1.5 million vehicles affected nationwide.

Still, the Arizona Department of Transportation only investigates about 125 cases of odometer fraud each year, according to the most recently available data from 2013.

“That’s really just the tip of the iceberg because so many of these odometer fraud cases go unreported simply because people don’t know they were victims,” said CARFAX’s Chris Basso.

Basso said contrary to popular belief, in the age of digital odometers, cases of fraud are on the rise.

“Now with cars’ computers controlling the digital odometer, it can actually be easier to roll back an odometer because there’s equipment that can be purchased online for a few hundred dollars that rolls back an odometer within seconds,” he said.

Basso said the average rollback is approximately 75,000 miles, artificially driving up the price of a vehicle by an average of $4,000.

The federal loophole

Odometer fraud is a crime and car sellers are required by law to disclose mileage and discrepancies in writing to buyers, but some fraudsters appear to exploiting a federal loophole, according to industry experts.

"AAA is aware that some unscrupulous private car-sellers are purchasing digital devices to fraudulently rollback odometers, and justifying the fraud by hiding behind a 40-year-old federal regulation that doesn't require written disclosures about accurate mileage," said Triple-A spokesman Mike Blasky.

An exemption to Title 49, Sec. 32705 of federal law says sellers of vehicles at least 10 model years old do not have to disclose odometer discrepancies in writing.

In Arizona, owners of such vehicles can leave the “mileage” box blank in an application for a title, according to ADOT Assistant Communications Director Doug Nick.

The written disclosure exemption, 49 CFR 580.17, was originally passed in 1970s and applied to vehicles 25 model years or older, said National Highway Traffic Safety Administration spokeswoman Kathryn Henry. In the 1980’s, the exemption was broadened to cover 10-year-old vehicles.

“As a practical matter, in those days vehicles didn’t last as long as they do today and there was little odometer fraud involving older vehicles.  NHTSA recognizes that today’s vehicles last much longer and are increasingly becoming the target of odometer fraudsters,” she said.

In March 2016, NHTSA began seeking public comment on a proposed rule that would eliminate the exemption or narrow it back to 25 years.

How to protect yourself

Potential car buyers can research a vehicle’s odometer history for free using its VIN at carfax.com/odo.

Triple-A offers the following tips to watch out for potential odometer fraud:

  • Look for scratch marks or loose and missing screws around the dashboard, signs the instrument cluster may have been replaced or tools were used to manipulate a mechanical odometer. 
  • On mechanical odometers, make sure all the numbers line up straight, particularly the 10,000 digit.
  • When test driving a car, observe whether the speedometer appears to be operating properly and note the odometer reading. Don’t assume the indicated mileage is accurate just because a vehicle has an electronic odometer.
  • Check the vehicle’s inspection papers, owner’s manual and/or maintenance booklet for records of services performed at mileages higher than that shown on the odometer. Missing pages in the maintenance booklet could be a sign the odometer has been tampered with. Also, look for service stickers on door jambs or under the hood that may display higher mileages.
  • Look for excessive wear on the steering wheel, armrests, floor mats, pedals and ignition switch. If any of these items have been recently replaced or refinished, it could signal odometer tampering.
  • Check the condition of the tires. Newer cars with less than 20,000 or 30,000 miles should still have a matching set of original tires.
  • Ask to see the vehicle’s title and registration, and look for signs that the mileage readings on the documents have been altered, such as smudging in the background. Insist on the originals, not duplicates. 
  • A new title or one from another state may be a tip-off the mileage has been altered.
  • Ask the seller for a vehicle history report and check for discrepancies in the reported mileages. If the seller doesn’t have a report, obtain the car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), then visit AAA.com where you can get a member discount on a CARFAX vehicle history report.

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Derek StaahlDerek Staahl is an Emmy Award-winning reporter and fill-in anchor who loves covering stories that matter most to Arizona families.

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Derek Staahl

This once-uncompromising "California guy" got his first taste of Arizona in 2015 while covering spring training baseball for his former station. The trip spanned just three days, but Derek quickly decided Phoenix should be his next address. He joined CBS 5 and 3TV four months later, in August 2015. Before packing his bags for the Valley of the Sun, Derek spent nearly four years at XETV in San Diego, where he was promoted to Weekend Anchor and Investigative Reporter. Derek chaired the Saturday and Sunday 10 p.m. newscasts, which regularly earned the station's highest ratings for a news program each week. Derek’s investigative reporting efforts into the Mayor Bob Filner scandal in 2013 sparked a "governance crisis" for the city of San Diego and was profiled by the region’s top newspaper. Derek broke into the news business at WKOW-TV in Madison, WI. He wrote, shot, edited, and presented stories during the week, and produced newscasts on the weekends. By the end of his stint, he was promoted to part-time anchor on WKOW’s sister station, WMSN. Derek was born in Los Angeles and was named the “Undergraduate Broadcast Journalism Student of the Year” in his graduating class at USC. He also played quads in the school’s famous drumline. When not reporting the news, Derek enjoys playing drumset, sand volleyball, and baseball.

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