Mar-Lin Anderson's first inkling that her 2001 Pontiac Grand Prix wasn't all it seemed came the same day she paid $5,600 and drove it off an Antioch used car lot in late 2012.
Although the odometer showed just over 110,000 miles, the car showed the telltale signs of age, including a broken fuel gauge and "funny noises," she said. "You wonder," said the Hercules mother of three, "what's going on?"
What was going on was Anderson's odometer reading was off by nearly 70,000 miles. This week the man from whom she bought the car, California Car Sales owner George ¿Guevara was charged with nearly 80 counts of fraud, including 20 related to rolled-back odometers on cars sold at his lot. His wife, Danielle, also was charged in the scheme.
Guevara's case is the largest so far in California involving odometer fraud at a licensed car dealership. But Cmdr. Tom Wilson of the Department of Motor Vehicles Investigations Unit, central area, said even bigger cases likely will follow. Improved technology has made odometer fraud a thriving criminal enterprise that in 2013 cost Californians $1.2 billion in lost car values.
"It's the fastest-growing trend crime in the state of California," Wilsonsaid. "It's a big problem and becoming bigger."
In Anderson's case, a mechanic revealed the bad news: The engine mount was damaged.
Two weeks and a hefty repair bill later, even worse news. A blown engine.
That's when Anderson went looking for answers and discovered the car's history showed it had at least 181,000 miles a few months before she bought it. The paperwork she signed when purchasing the car in November 2012, however, showed the odometer at 113,000 miles.
Anderson's experience was not unique. Many car buyers have fallen prey to the mileage scam. Carfax, a commercial web service that charts a car's mileage history and is used by the U.S. Department of Justice, said its research showed about 300,000 cars are operating in California with rolled-back odometers in 2013.
But the scam is growing, thanks to increasingly easy access to devices that can roll back odometers without detection. Such devices are available to anyone online, priced from $150 to $500, and aren't illegal to own, so anyone can roll back miles and market a vehicle for a higher price to an unwary buyer.
The average consumer loss of $4,000 per car, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, resulted in an $1.2 billion in estimated total lost value on affected vehicles in California last year.
"It's so much easier now than it used to be," Carfax spokesman Chris Basso said. "Now, you have a hand-held device that's like the size of a cell phone, you hit a few buttons, and you can change (an odometer) in seconds."
Someone like Anderson is a prime target for the scam. A first-time used-car buyer, Anderson acknowledged she made mistakes with the purchase, the first not having it inspected by a mechanic. But she didn't sense anything amiss.
"My husband drove the car and checked out the engine, and everything seemed to be working fine," she said. "It was out of loyalty (to the dealer) that we didn't do more than that. It was our first time buying a used car, so we thought we'd done enough."
The case against the Guevara's stems from the alleged rollback of odometers that Wilson said took place between January 2013 to June 2014.
"I was told I had a brand new engine," said Nicole Johnson, of Pittsburg, who said she purchased an Oldsmobile from Guevara's lot in 2013. "It fell apart instantaneously. I bought the car and it supposedly had 97,000 (miles). We found out later it had 190,000."
Technology has spurred the proliferation of odometer fraud, Wilson said, because most odometers are now programmed through a computer. Devices, which investigators call "odometer correction tools," can manipulate the miles displayed by hacking into a vehicle's computer. The devices are operated as simply as dialing a keypad.
Mechanics use them when a car's odometer reading has been tripped up by an accident, vandalism or even a jump start.
—The junkyards ... have a right to sell the (devices)," Wilson said. "The problem is that (they) are being used for illegal activities."
Anderson's plight underscores the consumer's need to be vigilant. Wilson said a follow-up check by a mechanic is not only required, it's also the law in any purchase of a used car. He also recommended odometer checks, readily available through the DMV with a vehicle identification number.
Anderson knows that now. But she said that getting the word out to others and educating them might make the cost of her experience -- $10,000 in repairs and $29,000 for a new car that "runs wonderfully" and sparkles in her driveway -- a little worth it.
"It's a new world for a lot of us," she said. "It's been a horrible experience. ... You'd like to think the seller is supposed to be honest, too. It's not that way anymore."
Contact Rick Hurd at 925-945-4789 and follow him at Twitter.com/3rderh
1. Have the car inspected by a mechanic. No purchase of a used car is complete until a mechanic has inspected the vehicle, according to the DMV. The responsibility for the inspection is on the buyer, who pays for it. But any hint of trouble nullifies any purchase, even if paperwork has been signed.
2. A car's odometer reading is recorded on the pink slip every time it changes hands. A vehicle identification number can be used at the DMV or via online used car services such as Carfax to find out what the mileage was whenever the car was sold.
3. Always ask the seller of a car to show you the original title and not a duplicate. A brand-new title or one from another state can be a tipoff that the mileage was altered. So can titles with smudging of print in the background.
4. Ask to see inspection and maintenance receipts from the vehicle, and compare the odometer readings.
5. Check the condition of the tires. Cars with less than 20,000 miles should have their original tires. This can be part of the inspection by a mechanic.
Source: California Department of Motor Vehicles