There are several ways you can check for odometer fraud when shopping for a used car.
Always ask to seek the "incoming odometer statement" on a car you are interested in. Check the statement to see if it matches the reading on the car.If it does, that is not conclusive proof that the odometer has not been rolled back. Often wholesalers will roll back the odometer and then sell it to the dealer with a statement reflecting the altered mileage. But it does suggest that the dealer hasn't altered the odometer, said Jim Erikson, investigator with the Motor Vehicle Bureau Administration.
"Sometimes the dealer will say, `Well, we can't show you that. It's against the law,' or `It is against company policy.' If it were me, I would leave at that point. If they don't want to show the odometer statement, they have something to hide," Erikson said.
If the car was bought in Utah - and most used cars are not - look for a Utah inspection sticker or affidavit. Both will contain a mileage reading. Compare that with the reading on the odometer.
Look at the trailing edge of the driver's door for lube stickers. Such stickers often give odometer readings at the time of the last lube and oil change.
While the car door is open, look on the post of the driver's door for any sticker saying the odometer has been replaced with one that does not give the correct reading. If broken odometers are replaced with ones that cannot be set to the correct setting, law requires a sticker be placed on the driver's door post indicating what the actual mileage was at the time the odometer was replaced, Erikson said.
Sometimes when odometers are repaired they also have to be set at a different setting than the actual mileage, Erikson said. Law requires that a sticker note such repairs as well.
If the car is a General Motors car, a silver line between numbers on the odometer indicates that one of the numbers has been turned back and is out of sync with the others, he said. It can also indicate that the odometer is broken and the numbers are rolling free. In such cases, the reading is probably inaccurate.
On Ford cars, it is impossible to turn a number back on the odometer and line it up perfectly with the other numbers, Erikson said. If one of the numbers - probably the highest number - is significantly out of line with the other numbers, something is wrong. Slight variations in alignment are normal, he said. But if a number is as much as halfway out of alignment, it may have been turned back.
The same holds true for several foreign models. If any number on some foreign models is noticeably out of alignment, the odometer may have been turned back, he said.
On cars with less than 20,000 miles on the odometer, check the tires. The tires on the car should be the same make as the full-size spare in the trunk. If they aren't, the car may have more than 20,000 miles.
"If a Uniroyal is in the trunk and Goodyears are on the car, that may be an indicator.
"Find out who the previous owner is and give him a call. If the dealer doesn't want to say who the previous owner is, I'd look somewhere else," Erikson said.
The prospective buyer will probably have to call out of state to find the previous owner, he said. But it's worth the phone call.
If you go ahead and buy a car and then notice problems that suggest that car has more miles on it than the odometer shows, you can still file a complaint.
People who believe they are the victims of odometer fraud should call the Motor Vehicle Bureau Administration at 538-8400.
"We're swamped as it is," Erikson cautioned. "If a caller can tell us something that suggests the odometer has probably been rolled, it helps us. We take the call more seriously."
The agency probably won't be able to help car owners who just don't like how their car is acting and want to report general complaints.
But if an owner notices problems that suggest considerable wear on a car with relatively low mileage, he should report it. For example, if the brakes are worn out and the odometer says there are less than 20,000 miles on the car, there may be a problem, he said.
Under the Federal Vehicle Cost Savings Act, victims of odometer fraud can sue the dealers for three times any damages plus attorney's fees, Erikson said.
When dealers are confronted with owners who have a legitimate complaint and are willing to sue, "The dealer usually buys the car back or makes some kind of settlement," he said.
The agency takes odometer fraud seriously. Altering an odometer to get $2,000 more for a car is no different than walking into someone's house and stealing $2,000 from a dresser drawer, he said.
But it's more than just the cash.
"We're not just concerned about the public losing money. We're concerned about safety."