How to Detect Odometer Rollback

Detecting odometer rollback

If you’re looking at a used car to buy, some of the important things to watch for include:

  • multiple short-term owners
  • many manufacturer recalls
  • odometer rollback
  • title washing

Vehicles are a lot more complex now than in years past, including many sensors that detect issues with the engine and electrical system. A mechanic now has to use a special machine to read and interpret sensor messages before resetting them, making it more difficult for drivers to understand what’s going on with their cars.
A VIN check helps to demystify many issues common with used cars. Getting a VIN report will reveal much of the car’s history, including:

  • the number of past owners
  • recall history
  • accident/repair history
  • accurate mileage

What is an Odometer Rollback?

An odometer rollback is the illegal process of shaving miles off a car’s history. In the days of analog odometers, this could be achieved by opening the dashboard and physically moving the digits that rolled over as the miles rolled past, or by putting the vehicle up on blocks, putting it in reverse, and leaving a rock on the accelerator until it ran out of gas. In years past it was not unusual for a vehicle to have its odometer tampered with, as VIN numbers and the associated vehicle history system was not commonly in place until around 1988. Repair shops did not keep digital records then, either, making a vehicle’s repair history difficult to trace.
People usually roll back odometers to make a car appear more valuable than it is. A 10-year-old car with 100,000 miles on it doesn’t sell for as much as a 10-year-old car with 60,000 miles on it.
An odometer rollback can have serious implications for the owner and their insurance company, including changing the cost of insurance when the true reading is revealed.

How Can an Odometer be Changed?

How can an odometer be changed

Digital odometers in modern vehicles are more difficult to change, making odometer rollback rarer than it used to be – yet it hasn’t disappeared completely. Fraudsters count on people not checking things like vehicle history reports and vehicle maintenance records to ensure that the mileage didn’t drop unexpectedly. There are devices available that plug into a car’s computer system and allow the user to reset the mileage number. 
Other ways to roll back an odometer are:

  • identifying and reprogramming the odometer chip located in the dash display unit
  • replacing the dash display (speedometer and other indicators) with one from another vehicle of the same model with lower mileage

Signs of an Odometer Rollback

When looking for a used vehicle to purchase it can be easy to get caught up in the sparkle of a good-looking car and the idea that you deserve an upgrade, a departure from the tired, worn-out vehicle you’d been driving. But by doing so important details can be overlooked. When considering a used vehicle, look for signs that the seller (usually a private individual, not a dealership) is misrepresenting the true condition of the car, such as:

  • not providing a vehicle history report – you can look this information up on your own if it is not provided
  • indications that the mileage on the odometer is misrepresented, such as “play” in the steering wheel (how much you can turn it when the car is parked) and wear on the accelerator and brake pedals (if they’re worn down it’s not a new car)
  • any hesitation in allowing you to take the vehicle to a shop of your own choice to have the valves and other systems evaluated before buying.

Methods to Detect Mileage Rollback

Examine any paperwork that comes with the vehicle – service reports should include the car’s odometer reading, including those for simple oil changes. Check the dates of those service appointments against the current odometer reading to determine if the true number of miles has been altered.
Familiarize yourself with the milestones of vehicle ownership: tires generally last 50,000 miles, brakes last 60,000 miles; if the car’s performance feels more “worn in” and loose than the odometer is showing, it could be a fraudulent situation. A newer car has tight steering, brakes that work instantly, and the body doesn’t “roll” when you turn a corner.
Always take a car to a trusted mechanic before purchasing. This person can check the vehicle’s systems to tell how it is running and can look for signs of wear that the seller is trying to hide. A good mechanic can also predict any imminent issues and tell you what they will cost to repair so that you have a solid understanding of the near-term costs of ownership.

VIN Odometer Check

VIN check

If a vehicle history report is not available from the seller of a used vehicle it is always worthwhile to look up the car’s VIN on your own and do a VIN check
The VIN is your vehicle’s unique serial number that tells where and when the vehicle was manufactured as well as many details about its components (type of engine, body style, etc.). This number matches the information on the vehicle title and is used to trace the vehicle’s history. It is the information used in vehicle history reports.
A VIN check will tell you if the vehicle has been totaled in a flood or accident, where it has been registered in the past, and if the title has been obtained in a state with lax regulations that allow salvaged vehicles to be retitled. The VIN check will also confirm the odometer reading that is seen on the dashboard. If the odometer reading on the dash does not match the VIN check information, the odometer has been tampered with.