Odometer fraud causes financial loss amounting to billions of dollars a year in the United States, comparable to the losses caused by auto theft. It is a serious national problem, and both odometer tampering and mileage misrepresentation are illegal.
Depending on the year, make, model and actual mileage of a used vehicle, rolling back the odometer reading can add $1,500 to $3,000 or more to its selling price. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that when other related costs are considered, including more frequently-needed repairs, the average consumer loss due to odometer fraud is approximately $4,000 per vehicle.
“Clocking” an odometer is a misdemeanor under Georgia law, with penalties including a fine of up to $1,000 and/or one year in jail. Tampering with or knowingly misrepresenting an odometer mileage reading is illegal under federal law, which classifies the crime as a felony, carrying penalties of up to three years in prison and/or a $50,000 fine per violation. In addition, if you are the victim of odometer fraud, you have the right to file a civil suit for damages in either state or federal court for up to three times your actual damages or $1,500, whichever is greater (plus attorney’s fees and court costs, under the federal statute).
To win your case in court, you will need to be able to prove that your vehicle’s odometer reading was altered or misrepresented, as well as who was responsible for tampering with or knowingly misrepresenting the mileage, and that this was done with an intent to defraud.
What the Law Prohibits
- Disconnecting, resetting or replacing the odometer with intent to change the mileage reading.
- Operating a vehicle with a nonfunctional odometer with intent to defraud.
- Advertising, selling, using or installing a device that causes an odometer to register incorrectly.
- Knowingly falsifying an odometer mileage disclosure statement.
- Failing to attach a written notice of odometer replacement to the left door frame of the vehicle, or removing or altering such a notice.
- Accepting or issuing a blank or incomplete odometer mileage disclosure statement.
- Conspiring with any other person to violate the odometer fraud statute or related disclosure regulations.
What the Law Requires
Disclosure: A written mileage disclosure statement is required whenever a vehicle is bought or sold, or at the end of a lease. This requirement applies to individuals as well as dealers. (Mileage disclosure is not mandatory on heavy trucks or vehicles that are ten or more years old.) If you are leasing the vehicle, see your dealer or leasing agent for the disclosure form when the lease term ends.
Record retention: Dealers, auctions and lease companies must keep copies of all their mileage disclosure records for a period of five years.
- Lawful repair: When an odometer is serviced, repaired, reprogrammed or replaced and cannot be adjusted to reflect the vehicle’s true mileage, the odometer must be set to zero. A notice or sticker indicating the true odometer mileage before replacement of the gauge must be attached to the left front (driver’s side) door frame. When the vehicle is sold, the mileage discrepancy must be disclosed. Any other repair that changes the odometer mileage reading (except setting it to zero) is illegal.
How Car Buyers Can Protect Themselves
Examine the vehicle for tampering clues. Look for physical evidence of tampering, such as scratches or marks on the odometer, misaligned digits or missing or loose screws in the dash. Look for oil change or other service or inspection stickers under the hood or in the door jambs, and for warranty or service records in the glove box. Make sure those mileage readings are consistent with the current mileage reading. Check the tires, pedals, seat covers and other parts of the car to make sure the wear and tear on them corresponds to the mileage being represented.
Have the vehicle inspected by a mechanic prior to purchase. Not only can he or she give an opinion on whether or not the overall mechanical condition of the vehicle corresponds to its mileage reading, but a good mechanic or inspection service can often identify current or potential problems or service issues that you may be not be aware of or be able to identify.
Compare mileage to available documents. Check the mileage reading on the title, any prior odometer mileage disclosure statement, warranty or service records and the like, for any possible discrepancies or unusual patterns (such as long periods of time with little mileage being added, or substantial mileage apparently being accumulated in a short period of time).
If buying from an individual, ask to see the current title, both to check the mileage reading and to verify that you are actually dealing with the owner of the vehicle. If buying from a dealer, ask to see the title or incoming mileage disclosure statement and be wary if the records are “unavailable,” since dealers are required to keep such records for five years.
Check the ownership history of the vehicle. Talk to former owners, if possible, for information about the vehicle’s mileage, condition and service history. Consider purchasing a vehicle history report (available online from vendors such as AutoCheck or CARFAX) for information obtained from various government and industry databases regarding the vehicle’s mileage and its accident and service history.
Get a mileage disclosure statement at the time of sale. (See below for a link to one you can print out.) If the mileage on the disclosure statement is different from the reading on the odometer or what has been represented to you, do not sign it or complete the transaction until the discrepancy has been resolved. Make sure the statement is fully completed and signed by the seller. At the time of sale, both the buyer and the seller should obtain a copy of the disclosure statement for record-keeping. Do not rely on promises that this critical document will be mailed or delivered at a later date.