Vehicle experts are warning anyone in the market for a used car to be on the lookout for rolled-back odometers, which can trick consumers into believing a car has less mileage or wear and tear than it actually does.
According to CARFAX, the number of vehicles on the road with a rolled-back odometer increased in 2020 by 13% compared to the previous year.
"If you are shopping for a used car, this should be on your list of things that you are looking at," said Emilie Voss, public relations director of CARFAX, a vehicle history website for buyers and sellers.
According to Voss, California has more vehicles with rolled-back odometers than any other state in the country.
CARFAX estimates Los Angeles alone has nearly 200,000 vehicles with a rolled-back odometer, making it the number one city in the country for odometer fraud.
"It's very simple to do," said Josh Ingle, who owns Atlanta Speedometer, a company specializing in odometer repair.
Ingle explained his company uses a special device to reset or program odometers to the correct mileage when an odometer breaks or needs to be replaced.
However, improving technology has made the same device Ingle uses for legitimate purposes easy to obtain online for a couple hundred dollars.
"The tools that have become available in recent years are far less expensive than they used to be," Ingle warned. "It doesn't require a license or anything to buy it and it can be used in the wrong way as well."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates there are over 450,000 odometer fraud cases in the U.S. each year, costing Americans more than $1 billion annually.
The impact to consumers can be huge and can result in buyers paying much more for a vehicle than it is worth.
For instance, Kelly Blue Book, a website that helps consumers estimate a car's value, puts the value of a 2010 Honda CRV with 133,304 miles at $8,111.
If that same car had just 90,000 miles, Kelly Blue Book estimates the value would increase by about 15% to $9,341.
"There are steps you can take to make sure that you are more informed," Voss said.
CARFAX suggests buyers always test drive a vehicle before purchasing it, pull a vehicle history report, look for red flags such as an odometer reading that hasn't increased over several years, and obtain a vehicle inspection from an independent mechanic.
"They have a trained eye so they might see things that you or I don't see such as advanced signs of wear that don't match that current odometer reading," Voss said.
Not being careful could leave a buyer overpaying for a car or getting stuck with a car that's harder to insure or resell because of the false odometer reading and even breaks down because of unexpected wear and tear.