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How to detect odometer fraud

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Updated 11 Oct 2019

Rachel White

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Evidence of humans measuring the distance they travelled goes back as far as Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BC) when the all-conquering Macedonian leader used Bematists - specialists trained to calculate the distance by counting their steps - on his ancient Asia invasion tour.

Apparently, the Betamists records were so accurate, some believe they must have used measuring devices - an odometer - rather than the step-counting method.

Whatever the truth, the need to know how far we’ve travelled has always been rather important and the odometer, in one form or another, has been integral to a vehicle’s instrumentation since cars first rumbled out onto the road.

In the early 1900s, many cars came fitted with the mechanical Auto-Meter device, and mechanical odometers were used right up to the turn of this century. Today, electronically controlled odometers are the norm.

How does an odometer work?

Most odometers work by counting the rotation of the wheel on a car. A sensor transmits this data to a computer that calculates the distance travelled based on the specified tyre circumference for that vehicle.

Given these specifications, if you were to change the wheel and tyre on a vehicle the odometer reading will be affected, so the sizing should remain the same.

What is odometer fraud?

A vehicle that has travelled a handful of kilometres will clearly be more desirable to a buyer than one that has clocked up hundreds of thousands of kilometres, and that pretty much explains the reason why odometer fraud - the illegal act of changing the odometer reading to make it appear a vehicle has travelled fewer kilometres - is performed.

How is it done?

In the old days, it was called ‘winding back’ the odometer. Fraudsters would physically pull the odometer out of the vehicle and manually wind the display backwards.

Nowadays, they can still physically alter, change or reset the numbers but some will also disconnect the odometer, continue to drive the vehicle and then hook the odometer back up when it comes time to sell.

Alternatively, an odometer from another vehicle may be used to replace the original.

Odometers can be legally removed or replaced, but the action has to be registered and approved by government authorities.

How to identify odometer fraud?

  • Odometer fraud has been going on for years. It can be difficult to know when one has been tampered with but here are some tips to detect odometer deception:
  • Compare odometer readings with service history records
  • Does the condition of the car’s interior and parts reflect the number of kilometres on the clock
  • Check the odometer numbers on the display are in alignment
  • Compare the average kilometres on similar vehicles of the same age
  • If the vehicle has under 20,000 km on the odometer, you would expect the car to have all original equipment and tyres fitted
  • Look for telltale signs that the dash has been accessed and the screws around the odometer have been removed or if there are marks around that area

If you are looking to buy a vehicle that has low kilometres for its age and something doesn’t seem right, have a mechanic carry out a pre-purchase inspection and ask the mechanic for their opinion on the odometer reading.

You can book a pre-purchase inspection through AutoGuru to put your mind at ease.

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Written By

Rachel White

Rachel spent her early adult life around cars, motorsport and hands-on with her own cars. This interest moved into various careers within the Automotive industry. Joined with her passion for writing, Rachel loves putting the two together to share her experience, so we can all become AutoGuru’s.