In a memorable scene at the end of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the gang tries to undo the damage the day’s joy riding has wrought on Cameron’s dad’s beloved Ferrari. Ferris has the bright idea that they can erase the extra miles on the car’s speedometer by simply propping the car up and running it in reverse. When the plan doesn’t work, he remains optimistic: “We’ll just have to crack open the odometer and crank it back by hand,” he says. We don’t get to see whether that plan works, either—because that’s when Cameron kicks the car off its stand and sends it speeding through the back of the garage and crashing down into a ravine.
So the old odometer-rollback scheme didn’t work out for Ferris and Cameron, but it does work for a lot of crooked car dealers. Or, it works for the ones who don’t get caught, anyway. The last time the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conducted a study of odometer fraud, in 2002, it estimated that over 450,000 cars were sold in the U.S. every year with fake odometer readings, costing consumers a total of $1 billion a year. AIM Mobile Inspections, a company that investigates off-lease cars announced in 2011 that, in their staff’s experiences, odometer-tampering seemed to be increasing at an alarming rate, and the Consumer Federation of America says one in 10 American cars have had their odometers rolled back.
Now that cars have digital odometers, they are actually a lot easier to hack and alter with dedicated computer software.
Before the 1990s, odometer tampering would have required opening up the car’s dashboard and manually moving the mechanical odometers inside—either by rotating the discs back by hand, or else by connecting a power drill to the odometer cable and spinning it in the opposite direction. Now that cars have digital odometers, they are actually a lot easier to hack and alter with dedicated computer software. Digital alterations are harder to detect after the fact, too. A simple search online for “mileage correction tools” or “mileage adjustment software” or similar phrases shows just how many options there are to be had on the open market.
Odometer fraud is a federal crime in the U.S., and people do get caught, all the time. Last week a salesman at a Ford dealership in North Hills, California, and his buddy, both pleaded guilty to a scheme in which they charged a few hundred dollars to roll back odometers and then sell the cars through the dealership with fraudulent paperwork. They face up to three years in prison and $1 million each in fines, according to the Justice Department. This is a fairlycommonpattern.
Most often, the buyer of a car with faked mileage will never know that they’ve been duped; but every once in a while there’s a dramatic exception. A Denver ABC news station’s recent report on odometer fraud included an interview with Bill McKinney, a man who bought a 2003 Honda CRV on Craigslist for his daughter. The car appeared to have 77,000 miles on it, and he paid the seller $6,000 for it and drove off. But on his way home, he watched in horror as the mileage suddenly jumped from 77,000 to 177,000. He later learned, by looking up the car’s history and through the reporter’s interview with the seller, that the scammer had originally paid $1,000 for the car when the odometer had read 230,000 miles.
Just imagine the state of affairs before federal regulations were put in place. An article on this topic from a January 1961 issue of Popular Science made the used-car industry at that time sound like an absolute free-for-all. When the article was published, it was only illegal in Wisconsin and New Jersey to roll back an odometer before selling a car. In the piece, reporter E.D. Fales, Jr. estimated that “speedometer-rigging” was so common that as many as 80 to 90 percent of all cars sold in the U.S. had been tampered with.
Fales described out how truly dangerous this trickery was; owners who didn’t know how worn out their cars were might not know to inspect and replace parts like shocks and brakes as soon as they should. One unscrupulous used car dealer (in an unnamed “Eastern city”) pointed out a ’54 Mercury that had almost 65,000 miles on it. “We asked for $375 for this car, and couldn’t get it,” the dealer told Fales. “So we’ll turn her back to 30,000, ask $575, get $550.” Fales wrote:
The odometer of a used car may be set back as many as three times in the course of a single resale. The original owner fakes the mileage before trade-in. The dealer who takes the car in trade fakes it again. Another dealer or used-car lot buying the car for resale fakes it a third time. Most cars have from three to eight owners before they are junked, records show. So it is possible for a car to have had its odometer set back 24 times between birth and graveyard.
Sobering stuff. In another evocative scene, Fales was directed to a “dingy shop at the end of a dark alley” to see what it would be like to exchange cash for an odometer rollback. The “grease-smeared man” looked at the car in question, with its odometer reading 59,108 miles, and said, “Three-fifty, takes an hour.” And what did he think the mileage should be adjusted to read, Fales asked, to get the car ready to sell? “He sized up the car critically. ‘Wa-al,’ he said, ‘I reckon 32,108 would be about right.”