INVESTIGATORS: Odometer fraud - KMSP-TV

INVESTIGATORS: Odometer fraud

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An old trick is back with a new spin, and it's triggering a consumer alert for car buyers. Fox 9 Investigator Jeff Baillon explains how crooks are cashing in on the huge demand for used vehicles and what to look out for to avoid becoming a victim of the billion-dollar scam.

This rip-off is on a roll -- a swindle that takes your money and gambles with your life.

"I'm driving a car that is unsafe, and I didn't sign up for this," Ryann Wait told the Fox 9 Investigators.

The players include organized crooks and people you might never suspect. The Minnesota State Patrol says the participants are "all over the board," but the number of Minnesota victims is already in the thousands and is growing.

"This was the last thing I needed to go wrong," Wait said.

Ryann Wait is a college student who works two jobs and needed a reliable set of wheels.

"I wanted a car with low miles on it as much as possible," she explained.

She found a PT Cruiser at a used car dealership. The price was right, and she bought it.

"The radiator went out, the heat and air didn't work," Wait recalled.

It's been nothing but a money pit for her.

"It all adds up to almost $1,900," Wait tallied.

That's because the actual mileage when she made the buy was approaching 300,000 -- more than double what the odometer showed.

"I didn't think you could roll back a digital odometer," Wait admitted.

As it turns out, you can. In fact, an estimated 14,000 vehicles currently on the road in Minnesota have been rolled back. All makes and models are included. Their owners are clueless that they overpaid for a car that has more wear and tear than they expected.

"It's shocking that somebody can do that to anybody," Wait said.

The Minnesota State Patrol has seven investigators working on the problem.

"They're looking at cases that involve over 3 million miles of altered speedometer miles," Lt. Ryan Carrol said of the officers' current cases.

How do the bad guys do it? You can find the answer on YouTube. Gadgets and software that can reprogram an electronic odometer sell for just a few hundred dollars online. With a few keystrokes, the high miles disappear -- but there's an even cheaper alternative.

"What we are looking at here are two vehicle display clusters," Carrol explained.

Swindlers will swap out the odometer display with one from a junkyard that has lower miles.

"It's as simple as doing an Internet search to find the right one," Carrol said.

Wait didn't realize she'd been ripped off by a rollback until the State Patrol notified her that the dealership where she bought her car was under investigation.

"Why would you do that to somebody?" she asked. "How can you sleep at night?"

An undercover officer went to the same dealership and found the mileage and multiple cars had been tampered with, the clusters swapped out. To hide the con, the dealer gave customers doctored vehicle history reports.

"An educated customer is much less likely to be swindled in this," that officer said. "All of the mileage readings were whited out on the report."

Grandpa's Auto Sales of Elk River is no longer in business. Last month, 79-year-old Rolland Evenson pled guilty to theft by swindle and odometer fraud. He has previous convictions for the same thing dating back to the 90s and 80s. He told the Fox 9 Investigators he's sorry, but said he did it to survive in a tough economy.

"We see about 200,000 new cases of odometer fraud happening nationwide every single year," Chris Basso, of Carfax.com, told the Fox 9 Investigators.

Carfax is one of several companies that sells vehicle histories to consumers. That information can tip car buyers off to odometer discrepancies. Just type in the vehicle identification number and see what comes up.

In an ad Fox 9 Investigator Jeff Baillon found for a 2000 Acura, the odometer reading listed 151,000 miles; however, a vehicle history check on that car revealed the last reported odometer reading was 324,000.

"The main thing I learned from this is to always do your homework," Wait said.

To avoid becoming a victim, it's best to run the history check yourself and take a test drive. While in the vehicle, try to determine if it looks, sounds and feels like it may have more miles on it than the odometer claims, and have it inspected by a mechanic you trust.

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