Action 9: Rolling back odometers

by: Jason Stoogenke Updated:

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. —

New research shows odometer fraud is a major problem, especially in North Carolina.  A Carfax study shows North Carolina had the seventh most cases confirmed last year; 11th most, proportionally. 
 
You may be driving a vehicle with the wrong mileage or about to buy one, without even knowing it.  If you're buying a used vehicle, and the mileage is wrong, you could end up overpaying thousands of dollars.  You also could also end up shelling out more for repairs than you expected.
 
Patty Lanham bought her son a used Dodge Dakota.  It had about 80,000 miles, or so they thought.  "A lot of things starting going wrong with it, a lot.  There was black smoke billowing out constantly," she said.
 
Patty got suspicious.  She started researching the truck's past.  She tracked down a previous owner.  Then, she says, he mentioned in passing the vehicle had 182,000 miles.  "I went, 'Wait, wait, wait, back up. How many miles?'  He said, '182,000.'  I said, 'No, it had 82,000 on it.'  He said, 'No ma'am.  It had 182,000,'" she said.
 
That meant somewhere between Maryland and South Carolina, the truck lost 100,000 miles.  That "somewhere" turned out being Rutherfordton, North Carolina, about an hour west of Charlotte.  "I got sick to my stomach.  You know, because I thought, 'OK, we just been duped,'" she said.
 
Federal prosecutors went after the dealer there, Ricky Ridings.  He pleaded guilty to altering vehicle titles.  The judge sentenced him to five years probation and forced him to pay $56,000 in restitution.  A few months ago, a Raleigh man, Francis Marimo, even went to prison for odometer fraud.
 
Why North Carolina?  CARFAX's Chris Basso said, "It is a huge state.  We rely on our cars to get everywhere in North and South Carolina. It really is a target rich environment."
 
Basso says people who roll back odometers tend to do it big.  They take off more than 50,000 miles at a time.
 
NC DMV License and Theft Bureau director Steve Watkins and inspector J.D. Walters say use a reputable dealer and make sure you see all the paperwork.  Still, it's hard to protect yourself.  Walters said, "If somebody tries hard enough, they'd be able to roll an odometer back."
 
So Action 9 found the DMV is now looking to upgrade its software system.  When you bring your vehicle in for inspection each year, it would automatically compare the mileage with the year before.  If the mileage seems fishy, it would alert investigators. 
 
Jason:  "That could be a big difference."
Watkins:  "Make a huge difference. Yes, sir."
Jason:  "Instead of just waiting for consumers to suspect something's wrong, you guys will get a flag, tell them they may have a problem."
 
It's not clear if the system would catch vehicles that move from state to state.
 
Lawyer Steven Moskos said, when you research a vehicle you want to buy, the most important paperwork is the title. He said dealers don't usually offer to share it. But it's your right, demand it. 
 
"People get a lot of information from those titles.  And, when they do, they're in a better position to negotiate," he said.
 
Moskos handled the Lanhams' case and they won.  The dealership had to pay them $45,000. 
 
"It was kind of like chalk one up for the good guy," Patty said.
 
But, even winning can still be a headache.  It took the Lanhams four years to get that money.
 
So, before you buy a used vehicle, make sure you read the paperwork.  Ask for maintenance records so you can see mileage.  You can also check www.Carfax.Com/odo.  It's free.  And get the vehicle inspected.  A trusted mechanic may be able to spot issues not consistent with mileage on the odometer.