By on March 7, 2017

Odometer Rollback is Easy, Image: YouTube

Brian writes:

I had a conversation with someone the other day who claimed his mechanic rolled back the odometer on his car. This is a late-model car with a digital odometer. I always thought digital odometers were protected from this, but a quick Google search reveals that it’s actually quite common and easy to roll back a digital odometer. I guess this is now something a buyer has to worry about on top of everything else when buying a used car.

For example, how could you ever tell a car was rolled back — say, 10,000 miles — when the car is legitimately in good condition?

What are your thoughts on this? And how can a buyer protect themselves?

Sajeev answers:

My thoughts are simple: as mentioned in previous Piston Slaps, get a PPI if you’re worried about buying a misleading motor. Carfax might catch an odometer discrepancy — paste the VIN here to check. You really need a PPI for peace of mind, and if a truck, van, etc. isn’t necessary (and you have good some credit and five figures to drop) buy a new, entry-level sedan that’s being disposed of at loss leader prices.

You can indeed put a price on your peace of mind, even if it means owning a vehicle you’d rather not be seen in. The threat is real — older digital units are re-programmable with a chip swap, as this video shows. There’s also an OBD-II tool you can plug in for “mileage correction.” Or, in the case of this VW Bora (Jetta), there’s an app for that.

Buyer beware, it’s a brave new world. Get a PPI, learn the basics of used car inspection, and do a VIN check on Carfax.

[Image: YouTube]

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41 Comments on “Piston Slap: Hacking the Unrollable Odometer?...”


  • avatar
    gtemnykh

    On new cars, there are a number of control modules that also retain a record of mileage (ABS controllers and such) if you dig around in a higher end scan tool. You might see some slight variations in readings and that’s fine. In fact if all of the readings are spot on, you know someone very thorough has been messing with rolling it back.

    I recently helped a friend buy a used sedan with a budget of $4500 ish. Went to look at a 5spd ’03 Accord LX with only 100k miles at a suspiciously good price of $3200. I expected a rebuild, but looking over the body it was all original paint and sheetmetal. Guy selling claimed that it had a new clutch, which I thought was odd at only 100k miles. Went to test drive it, it has EXACTLY 100,001 miles. As we’re driving, I dig around the glove box and sure enough, find a receipt for a clutch replacement… at 262k miles! I also find a paper with a record of oil changes by the original owner, every 5k miles, the last one being at 264k miles. So in this case it was a very rudimentary rollback by an amateur. The seller denied all culpability, feigning anger at the guy he bought it from for supposedly “ripping him off.” I posted a counter-ad with a cellphone shot of the oil change record and a screencap of the guy’s ad. My friend got a angry call from the seller a day later threatening violence over the counter-ad. Real class act: commit a felony odometer fraud, and then threaten someone.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      Was the seller a curbstoner?

      • 0 avatar
        gtemnykh

        Yeah, operating out of his house though, making his threats and illegal activity that much more laughable. It’s like buddy, you don’t get outed for odometer fraud, then threaten people who know exactly where you live (in terms of reporting him and his whereabouts to authorities). I left the counter-ad up for a while and forgot about the whole mess. There’s a lot of that kind of thing going on, we looked at a different car, a ’03 Camry V6 XLE with only 117k being sold for an attractive sounding $4200. We get there and the car is a horribly amateur-hour rebuild with poorly matching respray, terrible panel fit, the radiator support wasn’t even painted to match, overspray all over the radiator and belts, etc. Transmission had really delayed shifts, seatbelt light on, just a big mess. The seller claims he bought it like that and was only selling to buy a truck or something like that. As we’re chatting I look into the open garage and see that he’s got auto-painting supplies out, see he has a Civic right there in the driveway that’s mid-body repair, and things really become clear. I likewise posted a “buyer beware” ad for it since there is no word of the horrible botched bodywork in the original ad.

        Used car shopping on CL can be fantastically frustrating. Simply wading through the crap and curbstoners to find the ACTUAL “by owner” vehicles can be a job.

        • 0 avatar
          Ryoku75

          At GTH: Keep up the buyer beware ads, it’s quite disgusting just how many liars are out there on craigslist. I once listed a beware ad for a shady dealer that would advertise under owner very frequently (still do years later), got my ad flagged. When asking about it on the forums someone from a dealer told me how to take out a car loan?

          Tis why I’m happy to be done car shopping, I got great at picking up on lies and making people quiet just by asking basic questions.

          “What’s that wire hanging loose?” “Nothing important, I had it inspected in Illinois” (Illinois passes anything fyi). “Is that a rust hole?” (Dead silence).

          My favorite will always be a 90s era Accord I test drove, it’s seller was a professional mechanic who lied to me about a very audible exhaust leak, and insisted it’s two piece windshield (thanks to his handy work) would pass inspection. I’d hate to see what work he’s done for customers.

        • 0 avatar
          Paragon

          gtemnykh – thank you very much, my internet friend, for the stones to expose the scammers and rip-off artists on CL. You are to be applauded. Keep up the great work. Seriously. Mucho respect for you, and always enjoy reading your comments. There are too many trusting and ill-informed people out there that those scam-artists seem to make a very good living doing what they do. I love to check out the local and distant CL vehicles, but all too often lack the time to go see the cars in person. And, the truly good deals disappear before I get to talk to and go visit the sellers.

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      I know on Harley-Davidson bikes, the mileage is stored in the IPC (speedometer,) PCM, BCM, and (I think) TSSM. if you install a new (brand new) speedo in it, it’ll display the mileage stored in the BCM, and after 31 miles it synchronizes and is “married” to the bike forever.

    • 0 avatar
      SaulTigh

      Both your examples are of highly desirable used cars that sell for a premium because people believe they are better. So, there’s money to be made for the fraudsters because they have a lot of fish in the pond they’re working. EVERYBODY wants the nearly mythical low mileage, well cared for Honda or Toyota super cheap.

      I think it’s better to go down the food chain, to decent but undesirable used cars. You’ll pay less, and there’s less chance of hinkyness on the part of sellers because there’s less money to be made and fewer buyers to take the bait.

      Also, my local Honda dealer will sell you a brand new Accord LX for around $21,500 and is currently offering 1.9% for 61-72 month financing. If your friend can scrape together $4,500 this is the route they should go, unless they’ve destroyed their credit somehow.

      • 0 avatar
        gtemnykh

        Friend is a grad student that wanted a roomier more versatile/comfortable vehicle, as well as wanting to do some Lyft/uber driving as a side-gig. Believe me I did my best to direct him to what I thought were reliable but less “desirable” options (Ford Five Hundred with non-CVT trans, clean “bull” gen Taurus, w-bodies, 1g fusions, some Koreans, etc). I think in this case hooking someone on debt when they have very limited income was a poor option.

        You’re right that those “desirable” high resale models attract crooks, but curbstoners don’t discriminate, anything and everything gets rebuilt and flipped. And quite frankly there is a good reason some cars have that very high resale as they tend to hold up better with age, and it is possible with some patience to find a well-taken care of example for reasonable money. Said friend ended up with a slapped together (extensive and horrible quality bodywork from at least 2 fender benders) 180k mile ’09 Altima, against all of my advice. Seems to be holding up so far, but boy did I cringe when he gave me the news.

  • avatar
    Detroit-Iron

    This bookends nicely with JB’s article about dealing with Carfax screwups over-reporting mileage due to clerical errors at the quickie-lube or DMV.

  • avatar
    Vulpine

    Was only a matter of time before we saw this happen; it’s one reason the old analog odometers were forced to have a fail-safe built in to show it had been tampered with. Now there will have to be a digital version in non-flushable memory OR a hidden mechanical version retaining that physical indicator.

    • 0 avatar
      golden2husky

      Is the fail safe on analogue odometers actual truth or urban legend? I took apart the odo on my old K car to convert it to a six digit display and found nothing that would prevent me from taking out the odometer and resetting the number wheels where I want. I’ve also taken others apart as well and never found anything that would thwart disassembly and resetting.

      • 0 avatar
        Erikstrawn

        If you weren’t careful on the old odometers you could break the little anti-tampering tab and then the number wheels would be crooked. If you were careful it wasn’t a problem. As a technician I had to replace a speedometer/odometer once and I had to set the new odometer to the same mileage. Even as a young, rookie mechanic it was cake.

      • 0 avatar
        Vulpine

        Truth. If an odometer was rolled back by spinning the cable in reverse at high speed, the highest-number digit (either the 10K or 100K digit depending on age of vehicle) was built to pop to the left to create a visual separation from the rest of the numbers, much the way the tenths wheel popped to the right when the odometer rolled forward past the 99999.9 limit to show it had exceeded 100K miles. I’ve seen this in multiple cars and my 1990 F-150 had the tenths wheel popped when I purchased it, revealing it had at least 100K miles more than the odometer showed.

  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    I am so naive. I really thought that ODO rolling was a thing of the past. I am really shocked that some people participate in felonies so blatantly ala gtemnyky’s post. If your going to be a criminal, at least be good at it and don’t leave the previous owners receipts in the glove box.

    I will say here in CO, you can tell the difference between a 100k car and a 240k pretty easily by looking at the hood. We may not salt, but damn if they don’t lay a lot of sand and gravel on the roads in the winter that just beat the snot out of your hood and front fascia.

    • 0 avatar
      insayne_kokane

      Ditto in Idaho… Chipsealed roads equal peppered front end in only a few thousand miles. And cracked windshields on new cars.

      My 09 Jetta TDI was brand new, and by 30,000 miles, the front end was chipped like crazy. Nothing a minor not-at-fault accident due to unplowed roads didn’t fix right before I moved away that was fixed at a good body shop at great cost… besides the one clouded up headlight that didn’t get replaced, the front end looks almost new, along with most of the rest of the car that’s been repainted a couple of times (again, good shops paid by insurance).

      However, dig deeper and my 140k car will show it… mirrors are chipped, windshield isn’t factory, timing belt has been replaced, and the accidents and all dealer maintenance (besides the few times it was serviced in Germany) should be on Carfax. I’m tempted to keep the VIN and find some service that scours auto auctions/dealers/junkyards to buy it back after they buy it back from me. Will be missing emissions components, but nothing some euro parts won’t fix. It’s been a great car, which is apparently rare for VWs.

  • avatar
    seth1065

    I am not sure how often this happens but it surely does, one of the reasons I try to buy from one owners or at least someone who has owned the car for a awhile and has paperwork, I am sure this happens to “new cars” as well, I was interviewed w a guy for a sales job that offered a company Lexus, in fact they had like ten of them outside the office, I asked him how he dealt with the high mileage sales guys put on cars , his reply , we pay the guy down the block to roll back the ODO and export them if we can not sell them here!

  • avatar
    LS1Fan

    The only way to determine mileage accurately on popular mainstream cars is via Carfax type info services and maintenance records.

    Even if the vehicle doesnt allow digital rollback of the odometer, the owner /seller need only track down a lower mileage gauge cluster and swap it in.

    • 0 avatar
      Vulpine

      Following the titles is a way, too. The numbers are supposed to be certified following from the original sale of the car. This doesn’t totally eliminate the chances of it happening but it does provide a paper trail that’s a little harder to ‘hack’. That’s one reason why I can certify my ’97 Ranger only has 24K miles on it. I’m the second owner and personally knew the first.

  • avatar
    Add Lightness

    I have bought lots of cars on CL and it’s always the overall condition I look for. 250,000 from one owner can be better than 100,000 from another.
    I am usually happiest with broken cars I buy (always for myself) as they are cheap and the next repair is no longer a rude awakening. In keeping with this practice, I avoid complicated cars and especially ones driven by all 4 wheels.

    • 0 avatar
      Paragon

      Even though I mostly buy used cars, I expect the interior and trunk to still look good. If the interior and/or trunk and/or underhood looks trashed beyond the ability to make it look almost like new again, that is a DEFINITE NO GO for me. That despite a low price and/or low miles. These aspects of a vehicle are indicative of how the car was driven and treated by the previous owner(s). I expect a trashy car to have a rather short useable life-span, unless spending a ton of money to keep it running is an option.

  • avatar
    kmars2009

    I recently purchased a 2005 Hyundai XG 350L with 58K on the clock. One owner, Carfax, etc. It’s not mainstream, or popular….But it’s a great riding, inconspicuous vehicle that I love driving. I checked Carcomplaints first, to make sure it was not a problematic car. So far, so good.

    • 0 avatar
      Ryoku75

      Your XG is mostly a Sonata, other than some rust issues and interior material peeling on the door arm rests they’re pretty reliable cars.

    • 0 avatar
      Paragon

      Checking Carcomplaints and some other owner-supplied reviews of cars has been my habit for many years. A smart thing to to in order to know what to look out for, and what to totally ignore no matter how good of a deal. Let the buyer be aware, and beware.

  • avatar
    RV1458

    What is a PPI and where does someone get one? Google tells me it is a Proton Pump Inhibitor…but that’s not what you’re talking about.

    • 0 avatar
      Detroit-Iron

      pre-purchase inspection

    • 0 avatar
      Paragon

      And, paying a reputable shop to do a PPI is a worthwhile investment, prior to grabbing a deal that seems to-good-to-be-true. Because who wants to throw away whatever little money they have on a car that is discovered to be an utter piece of crap, after purchase, that they are then forced to go buy another car?

  • avatar
    Richard

    Buying used is real easy;

    1.One owner
    2.Complete service history (CarFax) Preferably @ dealer
    3 Clean CarFax

    It’s that simple

    Footnote 1st. choice TOYOTA

    • 0 avatar
      Paragon

      As I shared one other time, my dad taught me to buy a decent late model (or older) used car from the previous (original) owner, who most likely has the complete service history with receipts. Thus, you’re not merely taking somebody’s word for it, they have the documentation to back up what they tell you. And, if that original owner is somewhere between your parents and grandparents age, they are much less likely to be a rip-off artist. Well, providing that they don’t rebuilt clean, high-mileage wrecks as low-mileage good deals.

      • 0 avatar
        golden2husky

        And cars preferred by these original buyers can make great used cars. Makes like Buick depreciate quickly and are reasonably well built and reliable. Chances are the original owners drove them only occasionally (preferable to the daily driven car that sees 3 miles a day) and you can often get a low mileage, low cycle car for $7 or 8K and you have at least another 100K miles to add. Shop smart and you can get great used cars. If you insist on a Toyota, you are going to pay a lot more or end up with a car with much higher miles. Is that cheaper in the long run? I suspect, no it is not. A delta of $4 or 5K in the purchase price will buy a lot of repairs – repairs that you may not ever have to make. YMMV.

        • 0 avatar
          jalop1991

          “buy American cars used, buy Japanese cars new”.

          • 0 avatar
            gtemnykh

            Literally every single car my family has bought in the past 25 years of residing in the US has been a used Japanese one (aside from the Fit my dad bought new), we found them to the the sweet spot in overall value when reliability and features are taken into account. Starting with a rusty ’82 Civic Wagon bought for $750 and ending with an ’09 RX350 (15k miles, 3yrs old) bought for $32k.

            I’ve gotten great service so far out of a 208k mile Lexus ES300 that’s old enough to drink that I bought for $1600, I’d argue at the time of buying it, it was the best (most reliable, comfortable) car $1600 could buy locally.

            But I’m hoping to take a walk on the “wild side” with my first older used domestic truck here shortly if all goes to plan.

          • 0 avatar
            Vulpine

            Please don’t let it be a certain blue over tan, 2WD, 1990 F-150 XLT Lariat with the 5.0L EFI under the hood.

    • 0 avatar
      Big Al From 'Murica

      Contrary to the prevailing opinions in these hallowed forums, I find it best to buy pretty much anything not German or FCA and be the original owner.

      • 0 avatar
        Vulpine

        I’ll agree with being the original owner of a vehicle. I might even agree with avoiding German. I won’t agree with avoiding FCA; they’ve been more reliable than you want to believe. Most people who actually own an FCA that I know (granted, I live in a moderately small town) don’t want to let go of them.

  • avatar
    mmreeses

    If the gain is high and the chances of being caught are low, someone/somewhere is going to cheat.

    Self-evident aphorism from Dilbert.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    Buy only ridiculously high-mileage vehicles. Problem solved!

    – Sincerely, someone who bought a 186k mile Acura

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    Here in PA, mileage is recorded at registration by the owner and at annual inspection by the inspection mechanic. Both mileage readings and OBD codes are uploaded to the DOT. All of that is turned over to Carfax. The only way to get away with odometer fraud without leaving a trail is to roll back the odometer annually before each inspection.


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