Odometer reading is something we all take for granted when shopping from a used vehicle, at least as far as we assume it is accurate. The idea that an odometer reading can be altered is not a foreign concept, but the reference for most is based in fiction, whether in comedy—think Farris Bueller's Day off—or in a sort of mob scam in a cinematic drama. In reality, odometer tampering does occur and it is a very serious legal offense.
Under the Motor Vehicle Information and Cost Savings Act (a.k.a. the Odometer Act), it is unlawful to advertise for sale, sell, use, install, or have installed, a device that makes an odometer register a mileage different from the mileage the vehicle has driven or to take any other action toward altering a vehicle's odometer reading. It is also unlawful to conspire with another in furtherance of any action toward altering a vehicle's mileage reading?
While it is fair to say that a vehicle's condition matters more than a simple variance in mileage readout, used car shoppers use a vehicle's mileage to assess the auto's history and its likely future operability. If a used car that is several years old has very low mileage, a buyer might inquire into whether the car sat unused for long periods of time, which may indicate a need to check or even replace other parts, or it might indicate the existence of an issue that made the car substantially unusable. Likewise, a high odometer reading would prompt a shopper to inquire into the auto's prior use, such as whether it was part of a rental fleet.
The act of rolling back an odometer is, in itself, a deceptive practice and should be viewed with skepticism by potential buyers. Whether the rollback was done by the seller or by a previous owner or seller, someone along the way took deceptive action regarding the true condition of the vehicle. Whatever the reason for the rollback, dealers are required to provide written notice of the accurate vehicle mileage at the time of title transfer, and it is specifically against the law to include a false statement of mileage in this notice.
While odometer fraud can be difficult to identify, there are a few checklist items used car shoppers can use to cover as many bases as reasonably possible with regard to avoiding being misled on a car's true mileage history. The easiest thing to do is to check the vehicle's mileage through its chain of title, which a prospective buyer should always review prior to any used vehicle, and through oil change stickers or other service records. A shopper can also perform a quick visual inspection, including tire wear, scratches or other physical damage near the odometer, and apparent odometer misalignment (for older, analog odometers).
Odometer fraud is a serious offense, and California law provides strong remedies for victims, which are intended to also serve as a strong deterrent for would-be offenders. One who finds themself a victim of odometer fraud should consult with an attorney as soon as possible, as they may be entitled to recover an amount three times the damages suffered plus attorney's fees and court costs.