There are certain things you just trust. When buying a car, one thing that should be trusted is the odometer reading. However, that may not always be the case. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), odometer tampering continues to be a serious crime and consumer fraud issue. The organization reports that over 450,000 vehicles are sold each year with false odometer readings.

There are a few ways you can protect yourself:

  • Ask to see the title and compare the mileage on it with the vehicle’s odometer. Be sure to examine the title closely if the mileage notation seems obscured or is not easy to read.
  • Compare the mileage on the odometer with the mileage indicated on the vehicle’s maintenance or inspection records. Also, search for oil change and maintenance stickers on windows or door frames, in the glove box or under the hood.
  • Check that the numbers on the odometer gauge are aligned correctly. If they’re crooked, contain gaps or jiggle when you bang on the dash with your hand, walk away from the purchase.
  • Examine the tires. If the odometer on your car shows 20,000 or less, it should have the original tires.
  • Look at the wear and tear on the vehicle — especially the gas, brake and clutch pedals — to be sure it seems consistent with and appropriate for the number of miles displayed on the odometer.
  • Request a CARFAX Vehicle History Report to check for odometer discrepancies in the vehicle’s history. If the seller does not have a vehicle history report, use the car’s VIN to order a CARFAX vehicle history report online.

The federal government requires all vehicle transfers include an odometer reading. If the odometer is not correct, a statement to that effect must be included. Remember that vehicles ten years and older are exempt from the written disclosure requirements, so buyer beware.

Also remember that digital odometers that have been tampered with are even harder to detect than traditional mechanical odometers (since they have no visible moving parts). A vehicle’s condition and a detailed history report are the best clues a buyer has for determining whether clocking has occurred.