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CITY SMART | Street Smart

From Low Mileage to High Anxiety

Consumers: Officials report an upsurge in odometer tampering on used cars. But careful buyers can reduce their chances of getting cheated.


When Claudia Sarmiento put down $1,600 on a used Honda Civic more than a year ago, her car wasn't exactly a chariot of the gods. Then again, it didn't need to be to get her to work on time.

But within days of her purchase, Sarmiento's silver automobile developed serious problems in its emissions system that would have required her to pay thousands--which she didn't have--for repairs just to pass a routine state-mandated smog inspection.

Six months later, the 24-year-old Simi Valley resident tossed in the towel, deciding to junk her Honda and eat the $1,600 payment.

Like a growing number of Californians, Sarmiento believed she had purchased a low-mileage car that would be safe and largely problem-free.

What she actually bought, state investigators say, was a much-used auto that had been disguised by someone turning the odometer back thousands of miles.

National statistics show she's not alone.


Odometer tampering, which waned after reaching its peak in the mid-1980s, is making a strong comeback, according to federal and state fraud investigators. The trend is being fueled in part by a thriving used car market and in part by individuals seeking to avoid penalties for exceeding mileage penalties on leased cars.

Tampering investigations have jumped nationally, up from 20 a month last year to eight a day, according to the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration. Federal officials foresee a 25% increase in convictions by the end of the year.

In few places is the crime more popular--or attractive--than in California, home to the largest used car and truck market in the nation.

"To consumers, low miles indicate they are buying a vehicle that will last longer and will be safer," said Roy Hanson, who heads the state Department of Motor Vehicles' odometer fraud team in San Francisco. "The crooks recognize this."

Odometer thieves net an average of $3,000 in illicit profits per car, fraud investigators say. Their activities cost consumers about $10 billion annually, a top National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration official estimated.

Culprits range from the weekend amateur who spins his odometer to make a few more bucks when unloading the car to more sophisticated criminal rings.

In one fashion or another, these criminals have been around as long as the mechanical counters have been in cars. But it wasn't until the mid-1980s that the problem got out of hand, federal officials say.

In response, Congress passed a law that made it a felony to tamper with an odometer. The Federal Truth in Mileage Act of 1986 provided a three-year maximum jail sentence for anyone convicted of spinning mileage. It also required mileage counts to be included on any vehicle title.


State officials try to combat the problem through the Criminal Analysis Technical Services Unit. Operated by the DMV, it reviews discrepancies in mileage when a record of the sale is sent to state authorities. If records show a vehicle had 50,000 miles on it when sold one year and 25,000 when resold the next, DMV investigators try to put together a history on the car.

Steps to avoid becoming a victim, investigators say, include:

* Closely examining the odometer readings on sales documents to make sure they increase progressively.

* Examining the odometer for scratches.

* Checking oil-change and other service stickers on the door jambs for mileage readings, looking particularly for any that reveal a higher mileage than the odometer shows.

* Examining seats and pedals--brake, gas and clutch--for wear that does not match the odometer reading, either because the wear is too great for a low reading or because the pedals are replacements.

* Checking with DMV records.

* Asking for proper identification from the seller, ensuring that the seller is the person whose name is on the vehicle title.

And never forget that the economics of the used car trade create an incentive to disguise hard-driven jalopies as low-mileage cream puffs.

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