Checking the real mileage on a used car: how to detect an odometer rollback?

by Evaldas Zabitis
December 7, 2021
by Evaldas Zabitis
December 7, 2021

Even though illegal, mileage rollback is still common among used car sellers. Mileage is a popular indicator of a vehicle’s condition. A lower mileage means a higher price, therefore many car sellers commit odometer fraud to improve their profit.

Fortunately, you can often reveal the actual mileage of a vehicle the easy way – by getting a history report. Yet this won’t always work, so it’s good to know other ways to detect odometer tampering.

Many people still don’t get how important a vehicle’s mileage is. Used car buyers pay more to see fewer kilometers on the dash. But when numbers don’t match reality, that’s straight-up fraud. Stay with us for a minute and learn how to steer clear of this increasingly popular fraud.

Using the carVertical vehicle history report to detect odometer rollbacks

carVertical is the world’s first car history registry based on blockchain, providing only up-to-date and reliable information. Getting a car history report is as simple as entering a vehicle’s VIN on the carVertical homepage. Aside from the real mileage, our report may tell you about past accidents, title changes, and more.

Here’s how reports reveal the mileage:

clean mileage in report

This first example shows how steadily the mileage graph has been increasing each year. This is clearly a car that hasn’t had an odometer rollback. Success!

Sometimes you’ll see graphs that go almost flat. It could mean that someone rolled the mileage back during this flat period. However, scammers tend to really roll it back – you’ll see an example in a minute. Flat areas are more likely to mean that the time between records is short or the car hadn’t been used for a while.

odometer rollback in report

Here’s a classic example of a rollback right before the 200 000 km mark. Why is this mark so special?

Well, many modern cars start developing lots of issues around this point. Used car sellers are aware of this and may illegally “adjust” odometer readings.

In this example, someone rolled the odometer back by 40,000 kilometers between October 2014 and March 2015. If the next owner of this car didn’t get a vehicle history report before buying it, they may be in for a nasty surprise! That unpleasant 200k mark is a lot closer than it seems.

If you’re about to buy a used car, always use a VIN decoder to find out its actual mileage together with info about thefts, titles, damages. More and more people are making this a habit, and scammers hate it.

Signs of odometer rollback – what should you look for?

Odometers in cars can be either mechanical or digital. To tamper with a mechanical odometer, scammers would have to disassemble it. With that said, digital odometers have taken over the car market during the past couple of decades. They were introduced not only to change the aesthetics – preventing odometer rollbacks was another reason. Ironically, anyone can buy a cheap tool to edit the numbers on a digital odometer today.

Fortunately, there are ways to spot a fake odometer reading even before getting a history report. Here’s what you should consider.

How worn is the brake pedal pad?

How often do you change brake pedal pads? Yes, never.

Well, consider that a brake pedal is constantly in use when driving, so it wears down quite consistently with mileage. For example, a brake pedal should be only slightly worn in a 100,000 km car. On the other hand, a car with 300,000 kms under the belt is likely to have a tired-looking break pedal.

The catch? Look for inconsistencies! Does your 50,000 km car have a heavily worn-out break pedal? Or does it look like it’s just been replaced? These are red flags to look out for.

Check the condition of the steering wheel and the driver’s seat

When car experts are looking for a used car, the first thing they examine after opening the door is the condition of the steering wheel and the driver’s seat.

Different manufacturers use different types of materials for steering wheels and seats. Usually, budget models are more prone to wear and tear, while executive or luxury automobiles boast plushier and sturdier materials. Still, the driver always touches these areas, so these are pretty accurate mileage indicators.

If the leather or fabrics are already tattered, the car may be way past the 200.000 km mark.

Test the door hinges

Vehicle door hinges go through tremendous stress every time you open the door. A car door weighs about 40-50 kilos and is usually held by two hinges. It’s therefore no surprise, that frequent usage and slamming can seriously affect these hinges. Moreover, they often rust due to water and salt.

Open the driver’s door, grab it by the end and try to wiggle up and down. There shouldn’t be any play as these hinges are usually quite sturdy. If it’s loose, the car has seen a lot already, and the low odometer reading may be fake. This is a great trick up your sleeve because unlike with steering wheels and upholstery, sellers almost never replace door hinges.

Inspect analog odometers

As mentioned earlier, to roll back an analog odometer, you have to disassemble the dashboard. Only exceptionally steady and skilled hands can perform that without leaving a trace.

Aside from scratches or fingerprints inside the dashboard, missing screws, and broken plastic bits, a manipulated mechanical odometer may offer other evidence, such as misaligned numbers.

Check the maintenance records

Every vehicle requires regular servicing. Each time a mechanic changes your oil, timing belt, or fixes some issues, a car’s servicing history should get a new record together with the current mileage. If possible, look through the maintenance records to ensure there were no mileage drops.

If the owner doesn’t have a single maintenance record, this can be a red flag, but unfortunately, it often isn’t. Not everyone maintains a coherent record!

On average, a car does 20,000 kilometers a year

While everyone’s trips vary, 20,000 kilometers is the average annual distance travelled in a car each year. It means that if the vehicle is older than ten years, it probably should have more than 200,000 kilometers on the clock. Take that into account when looking for a used car.

What are the dangers of an odometer rollback?

The purpose of a mileage rollback is to scam used car buyers. A 50,000 km car can be twice as expensive as one with 150,000 kilometers on the clock. So, it’s not surprising that many scammers target mileage to take advantage. 

Manufacturers don’t build long-lasting cars these days. They profit the most from spare parts, not car sales. That explains why new cars become money pits just after a few years. If you’re paying an extra buck for a lower mileage, at least make sure it’s original.

To get a better view of how important the actual mileage is, here’s an idea of how various bits in the car go out as mileage increases:

  • 10,000 km – oil filter
  • 50,000 km – air filter, brake pads, and tires
  • 100,000 km – shock absorbers, water pump, timing belt
  • 150,000 km – clutch, spark plugs, alternator, fuel pump, fuel injectors, etc
  • 200,000 km – various other parts

That’s why used car sellers are so keen to roll the mileage as much below 200,000 km as possible.

Bear in mind that these numbers aren’t tied to every car on the road. While some manufacturers focus solely on reliability, others seek better road performance, comfort, or luxury features.

Moreover, some people take better care of their cars than others. Undergoing regular oil changes and replacing broken parts as soon as they’re damaged – these are crucial requirements when it comes to longevity. Unfortunately, many drivers still ignore them.

What is odometer fraud?

The act of editing odometer readings to fake the mileage is often called “odometer fraud”, pointing out the fact that this is illegal in most countries and US states

This scam is popular worldwide. As modern odometers went digital, the rollback became even more straightforward as the disassembly of a dash is not needed anymore.

Proving odometer fraud in court is complicated because many factors can present this problem as the victim’s lack of attention. The best advice is to overall avoid cars with fake mileage.

FAQ

What does an odometer rollback mean?

An odometer rollback occurs when a vehicle’s mileage is tampered with to represent the actual mileage to the buyer falsely. This is a big problem these days as hundreds of thousands of cars are affected each year.

What do I do after finding an odometer rollback?

First of all, don’t buy a car with a fake mileage because you’ll most likely be overpaying for it. Secondly, you should call the police – odometer rollback is a serious offense.

Are odometer rollbacks legal?

No. Odometer rollbacks are illegal in most countries and US states. For more specifics, it’s best to refer to the relevant legislation in your jurisdiction.

What is the best way to check the used car mileage?

Getting a history report before buying a used car is a common way to avoid odometer rollbacks. Alternatively, some car parts visibly wear out and are good mileage indicators.

Can a digital odometer be tampered with?

Yes. Both mechanical and digital odometers can be tampered with. In fact, the market is full of cheap tools for digital odometer tampering. With the right tools, digital odometer readings can be faked in a matter of minutes.

How to fix an odometer rollback?

Odometers can be rolled back and forth by automotive experts. Fixing a rollback on a digital odometer is relatively easy. Mechanical odometers are more complicated – most mechanics aren’t qualified or don’t have the right tools.

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