Colorado used car buyers beware: Odometers can be quickly rolled back and prices marked up

Posted at 10:43 PM, Nov 03, 2014

Odometer fraud is a crime, yet thousands of cars on Colorado roads have rolled-back odometers, and many drivers may not know until it's too late.

"I imagine there's probably a number of people driving cars that they're not aware of the fact their odometer is rolled back," Lakewood Police detective Case Byl said.

Bill McKinney found a 2003 Honda CRV on Craigslist, a car he thought would be perfect for his 16 year-old daughter. After taking it for a test drive he purchased the car for $6,000. But the excitement of buying a car for his daughter came to an abrupt end on the ride home.

"I kinda freaked out when all of the sudden it had 100,000 more miles on it!" recalled McKinney. "I thought, 'Oh no, I've been ripped off!'"

McKinney says the odometer jumped from 77,000 miles to 177,000 miles. He contacted Joseph Robinson, the man McKinney says he bought the car from, to get an explanation for the changing odometer.

"I called the guy I bought it from immediately. Didn't answer my call," said McKinney. "Texted him, told him I don't want this car, it has odometer fraud."

McKinney filed a report with Lakewood Police and kept investigating on his own. He learned that when Robinson originally purchased the car, the odometer read 230,000 miles, but when McKinney bought it just one day later the odometer read only 77,000 miles.

CALL7 Investigator Keli Rabon spoke to Robinson, and asked whether he rolled back the odometer on the car, but it was difficult for Robinson to remember exactly what happened.

He initially denied selling the car. Then he stated he sold the car after owning it for a month. After a few more questions, Robinson finally admitted to Rabon that he bought the Honda CRV, without putting his name on the title, and sold it one day later.

"So it was one day between the time you bought it and sold it?" asked Rabon. Robinson admitted, "Yes, I'd say 16 hours."

Robinson acknowledged he signed the original bill of sale which stated he purchased the Honda CRV with 230,000 miles on the odometer for $1,000, but maintained it was all a misunderstanding and that he "did not touch the odometer."

"I thought it was a thing of the past," said McKinney. "I didn't think it was possible to do this."

The CALL7 Investigators found odometer fraud is more common than you might think. Based on the number of cars registered in Colorado, a 2013 CARFAX research report ranks Colorado in the top 10 states for rollbacks. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration there are more than 450,000 vehicles sold each year with false odometer readings, costing Americans more than one billion dollars annually.

Detective Byl said odometer fraud is a quick way for criminals to make thousands of dollars on every rollback sale, without leaving a trace. According to Byl, it’s new technology that makes it so easy.

"I could go sit in the parking lot at the shopping center and do it before you come over to look at the car," said Byl. "It's become so much easier because they don't have to go through the whole process of taking items apart, and it doesn't leave much physical evidence for us to work with."

Buyers should be aware of potential rollbacks at used car dealerships as well. The CALL7 Investigators found a 1996 Audi A-6 at Century Auto in Lakewood that appeared to have low miles. A salesman told an undercover CALL7 Investigator, "It has 145. Runs and drives great."

When the we looked further into the car's history, records showed the car's odometer may have been rolled back years ago by a previous owner. It had 208,000 miles in 2005, and then later reported only 84,000 miles.

The dealership denied selling cars with rolled-back odometers, and refused to tell us if they knew the Audi was a rollback or if it was disclosed to the buyer as required by law.

Federal law requires written disclosure of the mileage registered on an odometer to be provided by the seller if the car is less than 10 years old. However, the law requires anyone with knowledge that an odometer's mileage is incorrect make that disclosure to the next buyer.

According to the Auto Industry Division of the Colorado Department of Revenue there have been 11 complaints alleging odometer discrepancies so far this year. Last year there were a total of 12 complaints, down from 21 complaints in both 2011 and 2012.

"He got over on me," said McKinney, "and that shouldn't have happened."  

The NHTSA recommends buyers always check the VIN number. They advise consumers to request a vehicle history report before purchasing a used vehicle. Companies like CARFAX create those reports by compiling title history, service records, and accident information in addition to warning for potential rollbacks. The NHTSA also suggest that buyers look for rollback clues by examining the vehicle's condition.

If you suspect you are a victim of odometer fraud contact the local police and the Colorado Department of Revenue's Auto Industry Division to file a complaint.