The following is a transcript of a report from "Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson." Watch the video by clicking the link at the end of the page.
A lot of a car's worth is measured by miles travelled, and there's long been a market for illegally dialing back the reality. Rolling back the odometer can add thousands of dollars to the value of a used vehicle. And Lisa Fletcher found digital technology hasn’t made the scam obsolete.
Odometers perform a simple enough task, counting the miles, which helps measure a vehicle's age and wear. Crucial when it comes to determining the value of a used car or truck. It can have a big impact on the sale’s price.
Take for example these two 2012 Chevy Silverado pickups with the same options. The one on the left has 175,000 miles and has a used value up to around twelve and a half thousand dollars, but take the same vehicle and roll the mileage back to 60,000 miles, and the value shoots up to over twenty-two thousand -- a difference of over ten-thousand dollars.
To find out just how easy it is to roll back modern digital odometers, we went to see Josh Ingle, owner of Atlanta Speedometer in Georgia.
Lisa: I think everybody thinks, "I have a digital odometer, can't be rolled back. That happened in the old days with the old-fashioned ones." Is that true?
Josh Ingle: No. Depending on the manufacturer, it's pretty simple to do if you've got the right equipment. In recent years, the equipment used to be $5,000 to $10,000, and some of these things are $300 now. So you don't have to disassemble anything. You can plug it into the car, change your number, unplug it. And outside of finding some written records somewhere, there's no trace.
That's exactly what happened to Cheryl Mansfield in Virginia. She bought a used 2010 mustang convertible, her dream car, that turned into a nightmare when she found its odometer had been rolled back 90-thousand miles. Her $14,000 car, actually worth little more than a thousand dollars.
According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration -- NHTSA --more than 450,000 vehicles a year are sold with odometers that have been rolled back, costing Americans about a billion dollars.
Ingle: I purchased this, I believe, off of eBay, was a little bit less than $300. All you do is go down, choose your manufacturer. General Motors, this is a GMC Envoy. All you have to do is change it. Let's give it 1000 kilometers.
Ingle: There you go. Simple. Very simple. You can alter that and do that as many times as you want to. That single chip can be written; I believe it's something close to a million times before it doesn't want to do it anymore.
According to Carfax, a vehicle history report service, the problem has been steadily getting worse, with the crime equally distributed among every state in the country.
But some manufacturers are better than others.
Ingle: The Germans are doing a much better job at trying to defeat it. For instance, a Mercedes, 10 years ago, will have the mileage stored essentially in three separate places. It's not truly a mileage, but it'll have a separate piece of code that has to check with another module to say, "Hey, I'm the correct part," the car that was originally installed. But you can still change that information. It is more difficult. But others, like for instance, this vehicle here, this is a GMC Envoy from about 2006, the mileage is stored in the instrument cluster and there's no other record of it.
Another key problem: different states have different rules about tracking mileage for used vehicles, and anything ten years or older is exempt from written odometer disclosure when the title is transferred.
Beyond the loss of value, high mileage vehicles can also pose safety risks because owners assume the vehicle is in better condition than it actually is.
The federal government says it is prosecuting major cases, especially those involving criminal groups working on a large scale.
In victim Cheryl Mansfield's case, the perpetrator of her fraud got prison time and a fine, and she's receiving compensation in small checks each month.
As for the future, odometer expert Josh believes the solution to the problem could come in the form of connected vehicles.
Ingle: If you look at somebody like Tesla, they know what their cars are doing. Every single day that car's reporting mileage back to Tesla. That's a constant thing that's happening because the car is networked.
But for now, with most vehicles not 'networked' or ‘connected’, there's always the chance somebody's rolled back the numbers.
For Full Measure, I'm Lisa Fletcher in Atlanta, GA.