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Odometer fraud on the rise in Austin and costing car buyers thousands of dollars

Used car buyers in Austin are getting ripped off in record numbers. Con artists are rolling back the mileage on odometers to make the vehicles seem more valuable. (Photo:Bettie Cross)

Used car buyers in Austin are getting ripped off in record numbers. Con artists are rolling back the mileage on odometers to make the vehicles seem more valuable. The fraud is costing victims an average of $4,000 each.

Kristin Young thinks she was duped. She and her husband bought a used car believing it had low miles. Instead, they discovered the odometer was rolled back about 67,000 miles to make the car seem more valuable.

"$5,000 invested and it's probably worth about $1,500," said Kristin.

"For us that's a lot of money and a lot of sacrifice," said Ferron Young.

Carfax data suggests that 1.5 million vehicles on the road have had their odometers rolled back. 10-percent of them are in the state of Texas. "It is getting worse. It is growing every year," said Chris Basso, a used car expert with Carfax.

Basso setup a demonstration to show how easy it is to put any number you want on a digital odometer. "We've got a truck that has 230,000 miles on it right now," said Basso.

That would make the truck's value around $3,600.

But in less than one minute the odometer was rolled back to 130,000 miles. "And there you go it's done already. 100,000 miles taken off the odometer," said Basso. "Somebody can now charge more than double what this car is actually worth."

CBS Austin asked for a second demonstration using our own numbers.

"We're going to plug that in right now," said Basso.

And in 54 seconds the odometer was rolled back from 130,000 miles to 86,000. "And that's the scary thing, isn't it? You're essentially hacking the car's computer just by plugging it into the device that we have. Those things are available through internet searches that conmen are using to rip people off," said Basso.

CBS Austin did an internet search and quickly found legal devices that are illegally being used to make cars seem more valuable. Many come from China and sell online for less than $300. CBS Austin also found YouTube videos with step-by-step instructions on how to change the mileage on digital odometers.

"It's hard because it's only a Class B Misdemeanor," said Robert Foster, lead investigator for the Texas DMV Compliance and Investigation Division.

The fraud investigator says in Texas the punishment for odometer tampering does not fit the crime. "It's just a little bit worse than getting a speeding ticket," said Foster.

Which may explain why Austin and other Texas cities have so many cars on the road with rolled back odometers. According to Carfax, Austin's odometer tampering cases jumped by 12-percent in 2018. That's twice the national average of six-percent. Statewide, the number of vehicles with rolled back odometers went up in 2018 by 9.7 percent.

"Odometer fraud is very hard to detect," said John Adams, owner of Auto P. I. Used Car Pre-Purchase Inspections. "If it's done by a professional, they can do it in just a few minutes and no one is going to be able to tell."

Adams said older vehicles can be a challenge. "This vehicle has170,000 miles on it," said Adams as he walked around a 2008 Honda Fit.

The compact car has faded paint, a cloudy headlight and a banged-up bumper, but Adams says it would be easy for a con artist to pass it off as having 50,000 fewer miles. It's fraud that would have a buyer overpaying by a significant amount. "$1,000 to $1,500," said Adams.

The Youngs didn't figure out they overpaid by $3,500 until they did a free Carfax odometer check.

"Financially it was a huge, huge problem. It took a lot to recover from," said Kristin.

She and her husband will never buy another used car without getting a vehicle history report and having a mechanic do a pre-purchase inspection. Their advice to consumers is to do your homework because buying a used car should not mean you'll be taken for a ride.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has the following tips to help used car buyers detect odometer fraud.

  • Request a vehicle history report or use the car's VIN to order one online.
  • Compare the mileage on the odometer with the mileage indicated on state inspection reports and vehicle maintenance records.
  • Ask to see the title and compare the mileage on it with the vehicle's odometer.
  • Look at the wear and tear on the vehicle, especially the gas, brake and clutch pedals, to be sure it's consistent with the number of miles on the odometer.
  • If you suspect fraud contact the NHTSA's Vehicle Safety Hotline at 1-888-327-4236.
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