2024-01-23

Research: Penalties for odometer fraud and how they (don’t) work

Renata Liubertaitė

Renata Liubertaitė

Odometer tampering is still one of the biggest concerns in the used car market.

For buyers, the repercussions of this shady practice can be financially devastating, as they pay inflated prices for what may seem like low-mileage gems. Meanwhile, governments are left scratching their heads, figuring out how to protect consumers, maintain the integrity of the automotive industry, and stop losing millions in taxes and uncollected fines.

Part of the issue is that mileage rollbacks are an international issue, but the solutions are localized and often inadequate. To illustrate the extent of the problem, we conducted research on clocking penalties across 21 European countries and the US.

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Disclaimer: This article is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. The contents may not be up-to-date with the latest legal developments. We include third-party website links for convenience and information, but we’re not responsible for their content or accuracy. We are not liable for any actions taken based on this article’s information.

Research findings

Our research shows that there’s no unified legal system across countries that could prevent “clocking” and mitigate information asymmetry between car buyers and sellers:

  • The attitude towards odometer fraud varies significantly across countries – from enormous fines and even jail time to just a hundred euros or nothing at all.
  • The highest fines for odometer clocking are recorded in France (up to EUR 300,000), while in Romania, although odometer tampering is illegal, there is no clearly defined penalty for it.
  • Imprisonment for odometer fraud is possible in 16 out of 22 analyzed countries, with Croatia leading with the highest possible sentence of all countries studied (up to 8 years).
  • Latvia has the highest clocking rate among selected countries (12.92%), which shows a clear correlation with lenient laws.
  • Odometer fraud appears to be more common in Eastern Europe than in the West.
  • Buyers tend to overpay thousands of euros for clocked cars, while governments lose millions in uncollected fines.

Penalties for odometer tampering vary significantly across countries

Falsified mileage readings are treated with different degrees of severity based on local legislation and enforcement practices. While some countries impose hefty fines, imprisonment, or both for fraudsters caught manipulating odometers, others have more lenient penalties or even lack specific laws targeting this issue.

Odometer clocking penalties in selected countries
Source: carVertical

Steep fines and prison sentences

For instance, Poland has one of the strictest laws regulating odometer fraud of all analyzed countries. Clocking vehicles is illegal, and doing so can lead to imprisonment from 3 months to 5 years. In less severe cases, the offender might end up with a fine or be placed on probation for up to 2 years.

Additionally, car owners who don’t report odometer replacement at a vehicle inspection station can receive a fine of PLN 3,000 (nearly EUR 700).

In Slovakia, altering the odometer may cost the fraudster between EUR 5,000 and EUR 50,000. Upon repeat, the fine can be up to twice as high, and the individual may be imprisoned for up to 2 years.

Meanwhile, France has the highest fines for odometer tampering among selected countries, going up to EUR 300,000. However, this mainly applies to legal entities, as individuals are subjected to pay compensation and damage costs. Repeat offenders face more severe penalties, leading to up to 2 years in prison.

Minimal penalties or no regulation

Although Croatia considers mileage rollbacks fraud (which can carry a sentence of up to 8 years in prison), there is no law directly addressing clocking. Estonia and Romania also don’t have a dedicated law that punishes clockers. This offense mainly falls under other fraudulent activities and scams, which can lead to fines or prison time. 

Meanwhile, Latvian laws regulating clocking are pretty mild. A fine for reducing a car’s mileage is only EUR 100 for private persons, while legal entities may have to pay EUR 1,000. If a private person gets caught performing mileage rollbacks for pay, they may expect a fine of up to EUR 200. For legal entities, it’s EUR 2,000.

In Switzerland, odometer clocking is not even illegal. Still, scammed car buyers can challenge the purchase transaction in accordance with the Swiss Code of Obligations and EU Regulation 2017/1151, which is binding in Switzerland.

In reality, the final penalty can vary greatly, depending on many factors, like the number of clocked vehicles, financial benefits, the value of cars, or the length of time the scammers had been falsifying odometer readings. However, it’s tough to prove the offender’s fault, regardless of the country.

Stricter laws don’t necessarily translate to lower clocking rates

Unfortunately, while stringent laws on odometer fraud should act as a deterrent, it’s far from certain they actually lead to reduced odometer tampering rates.

Clocking rates in selected countries
Source: carVertical

Based on our data, Latvia (which has small fines for clocking) has the highest percentage of clocked cars (12.92% out of all vehicles checked on carVertical). Similarly, in Romania, which doesn’t have specific laws for clocking, 7.82% of all checked vehicles have falsified mileage.

Estonia (7.81%), Hungary (6.07%), and Serbia (5.29%) follow the leaders with slightly lower rates, which could suggest the effectiveness of potential prison sentences for clockers. However, it seems much more likely that the higher clocking rates are tied to the region – odometer tampering is more common in Eastern Europe than in the West, with Croatia (3.51%) being a notable exception.

Portugal (2.22%), the UK (2.72%), and France (3.27%) lead with the lowest clocking rates. The regional differences are likely economic and cultural. For example, French drivers often lean toward smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles, and they’re more likely to buy them new. Meanwhile, Eastern European drivers often prefer bigger, more luxurious cars, but the economic realities mean they’re more likely to buy them older.

The UK is an outlier because very few cars are imported due to left-hand traffic. This greatly contributes to lower clocking rates, as imported cars are 1.8 times more likely to have falsified mileage.

In short, it seems that economic well-being and other circumstances are better predictors of the prevalence of mileage fraud than the strictness of penalties. Why might this be the case?

Clocking fraud is hard to trace and punish

While heavier penalties may prevent some fraudsters from odometer tampering, in reality, scammers rarely get prosecuted, or penalties don’t match the crime.

For instance, in Hungary, an offender who was accused of reducing the vehicle’s mileage by a whopping 500,000 km was given only a EUR 631 fine (plus expenses of criminal proceedings), which is nothing compared with the potential financial loss one can experience when buying such a car. In Latvia – the champion of clocking – not a single person has been charged with odometer fraud since 2020.

It’s extremely difficult to identify the offender, not to mention prove their fault.

According to our automotive expert Matas Buzelis, proving odometer tampering can be challenging simply because of the lack of evidence. It becomes even more complex when it comes to cross-border transactions that involve differing legal systems and varying regulations across countries.

It’s very difficult to determine who and when committed this crime and how. In theory, the buyer of a vehicle would need to gather evidence proving they bought a clocked vehicle, and that the seller was the one who manipulated the odometer. Even if we knew who owned the car when the odometer was altered, it could still be very tricky to punish the offender, as it requires strong and irrefutable evidence directly linking that person to the fraudulent act.

Both buyers and governments suffer from substantial financial losses due to clocking

Buyers may end up overpaying by thousands of euros when buying a clocked car. From a governmental perspective, a market filled with clocked vehicles means financial losses reaching millions of euros (in taxes and unpaid fines).

Considering clocking rates in selected countries, here’s our rough estimation of how much money governments lose in uncollected fines*:

  • France – nearly EUR 516 million
  • Italy – around EUR 394 million
  • Spain – over 261 million
  • Poland – over EUR 235 million
  • Romania – over EUR 222 million
  • Hungary – around EUR 151 million
  • Czechia – over EUR 101 million
  • Lithuania – over EUR 66 million
  • Latvia – over EUR 64 million
  • Slovakia – nearly EUR 50 million
  • Portugal – nearly EUR 40 million

*Hypothetical volume if fines = EUR 3000 and 100% of cases are prosecuted, regardless of actual fine size for clocking in a specific country.

Moreover, odometer tampering can have a negative impact on safety and the environment, as higher-mileage vehicles are (statistically speaking) in worse condition and have higher emissions.

Avoid mileage rollbacks with carVertical

Regardless of existing measures addressing odometer fraud, drivers should take the responsibility into their own hands and learn everything they can about a used vehicle before buying it.

This can be done by asking questions, taking the car for a professional inspection, or buying a vehicle history report (best case scenario – all three combined). The latter can help you learn whether the car’s mileage is accurate.

rollback before 200k km
Source: carVertical

Besides mileage rollbacks (if any), a vehicle history report can provide other valuable information, such as damage records, ownership changes, car title information, financial status, and more, helping you uncover potential weak spots.

Cars with falsified mileage are more common than you may think, so make sure to do everything within your control to avoid overpaying for what you think is a perfect find and steer clear of a potential financial disaster in the future.

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Renata Liubertaitė

Article by

Renata Liubertaitė

Renata is a writer with over 8 years of experience in publishing, marketing, and SaaS companies. Writing in various fields and covering highly technical topics has taught her to turn complex things into something everyone can understand. When not writing for carVertical, she loves DIY projects and spontaneous bike rides.