An odometer records the total number of miles drivers have driven a car. Tampering with an odometer means using physical or electronic methods to make the odometer present a number that is lower than the actual number of miles driven. This is a form of fraud because it makes a used car appear to be worth more than its true value. According to federal studies, there are more than 450,000 cases of odometer tampering each year in the United States.
The Truth in Mileage Act
The Truth in Mileage Act of 1986 is the most recent federal law regarding odometer tampering, as of July 2011. Also known as Public Law 99-579, it mandates that anyone transferring ownership of a car must include accurate vehicle mileage information on title documents at the time of transfer. The law applies to individuals as well as car dealerships. The law also contains provisions to help prevent alteration of title documents. Sellers must print titles using a secure process that will establish a "paper trail" regarding the vehicle's mileage.
State Involvement With the Federal Law
The Truth in Mileage Act set a goal for states to provide methods of secure title documentation by 1989, but allowed the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration to grant extensions if needed. Fewer than 10 states met the 1989 deadline. However, by 1994, all states had met the requirements set forth in the law.
Many states also have separate statutes regarding odometer tampering. In Missouri, for example, state law mandates that dealers or individuals dealing in used cars must disclose to all potential buyers the number of miles displayed on the odometer and must also disclose any modifications or rollbacks that have occurred on that odometer. To further protect buyers, Missouri requires that vehicles with changed odometers must have a notice displayed on the inside of the left door frame. This notice must provide details about the odometer tampering that has occurred.
Example Penalties for Odometer Tampering
Most persons tried for odometer tampering go to state rather than federal court. The penalties for odometer tampering vary according to applicable state statues. In Florida, for example, tampering with an odometer is one crime; selling such a car constitutes a separate crime. In many Florida cases, odometer tampering results in charges of odometer fraud, title fraud and grand theft. All three of these are third-degree felonies in Florida. Offenders can receive up to five years in prison and fines as high as $5,000 for each charge. Therefore, a single instance of changing an odometer, providing inaccurate title documents, and selling the car could result in 15 years in prison and $15,000 in fines. The Florida law also requires those convicted of odometer tampering to pay restitution to their victims.
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