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Only done 30,000. Honest, guv

Fiddling mileages is a lucrative and common crime. How do you spot a `clocked' car? James Ruppert reports
Perhaps the most important motoring maxim you can abide by in the late 20th century is "don't believe anything you ever read on a car's mileometer". Chances are it will be telling fibs. That is because some criminally minded person will have illegally tampered with a car's mileage to increase its resale value. This practice is called "clocking" and the problem is reaching epidemic proportions.

If you are planning to buy a used car, the chances of acquiring a "clocker" are surprisingly high. The best estimate from trading standards officials is that one in four used cars have been clocked.

Don't imagine that you will be safe by shopping at an established dealer with a legal obligation to check that the mileage is correct. Recently, DC Cook, a large dealer group, pleaded guilty to failing to check adequately the mileage on cars at two of its North Yorkshire outlets. It was fined pounds 17,000 and ordered to pay pounds 11,888 costs by Sheffield Crown Court for selling clocked cars during 1993 and 1994. The company, which sold, rather than "clocked", the vehicles, said: "DC Cook greatly regrets its involvement in these proceedings ... and has produced a three-stage plan to safeguard the customer against such problems. This comprises checking, training and monitoring."

So how can it happen? Here's the simplest clocking scenario. Dodgy bloke goes to an auction and buys an ex-fleet 1993 K registered Mondeo 1.8 LX, which has covered a blameless 70,000 miles, for around pounds 4,500. He takes it home and "clocks" the car back to a not unreasonable 45,000 miles. Within minutes the Mondeo is worth pounds 500 more. Whether he retails it for pounds 6,000 to an unsuspecting buyer, or recirculates it within the trade for a quick pounds 5,000, the tampering has paid off. There are much more extreme examples of that scenario as six-figure mileages plummet towards five- figure respectability. For an average family car, the car price guides indicate that 1,000 miles in the wrong direction adds around pounds 30-pounds 50 to the value. The motive is greed and the temptation is so great because the whole procedure is very easy. I am not giving too much away if I tell you that the mechanisms are simply removed and then poked with a screwdriver until the right magic mileage is tumbled. At its simplest, a piece of black tape or paint is used to obscure the sixth digit. Some sellers just replace the whole speedometer, odometer unit with a new one. Even the digital read-outs on cars built in the past few years are easily overcome. All it takes is some software, a laptop and around pounds 50 and a man who advertises in the Exchange & Mart will do it in minutes. So can you ever trust a mileometer reading again? Of course not.

Almost any car can fall victim. Vehicles are so well built that after a wash and brush up they can legitimately look 50,000 miles younger. Some cars rejuvenate better than others, and durable models from Volkswagen, BMW, Volvo and Mercedes are favourites simply because there is more money to be made from a prestigious marque. Popular makes, including Fords and Vauxhalls, are also prime targets.

The problem gets worse once the car has had a few owners and the service history starts to get a little thin. The Independent Mileage Verification Association (IMVA), which has conducted a survey over the past two years, found that in 1994, four-owner vehicles accounted for 8.1 per cent of the total with incorrect mileages. By 1995, this figure had increased to 13.67 per cent and a five-owner car was up to 20 per cent, whereas one-owner cars represented the lowest risk - just 1.26 per cent had an incorrect mileage. Incredibly, the IMVA survey also revealed that almost 65 per cent of the clocked vehicles offered to dealers for sale or part- exchange came from members of the public.

For the novice, spotting a clocked car is not always easy. Appearances are deceptive and a shiny car is all too convincing. Look a little closer, though, and you might spot a few clues. A clocker could replace worn pedal rubbers, but not a smooth steering, or gear knob, sagging driver's seat, worn ignition key and threadbare fitted carpet. As for the odometer itself, the digits may be misaligned if the clocker is clumsy, also any retaining screws securing the instruments may be scratched, or blurred, indicating disturbance. The paintwork, too, can hold clues: look for fresh paint on door and window rubbers, or lots of scratches around the driver's door and sill, then at around the boot, or hatchback for signs of a busier life. Finally, the simplest check is the paperwork, if there is any. Often the first casualty of a clocked car is its history. Some enterprising clocker may concoct bogus records, so look out for incomplete service books, MoTs and parts bills, doctored with correction fluids that don't follow a logical sequence. The quickest way to settle a mileage matter is to contact the previous owners as indicated on the V5 registration document. But the clockers know how to muddy the waters by never showing a buyer the V5. They register the car to themselves, then re-register again in the buyer's name, so that the two previous owners disappear from the documents. The DVLA can provide earlier ownership details for pounds 5, but the service takes weeks. The definitive answer, however, can be provided by an independent engineer's report.

Dealers are obliged by the Trade Descriptions Act to take "all reasonable precautions" and to exercise "all due diligence" to ensure that vehicles for sale are not badly described or misrepresented. If they don't, and innocently sell a car that has been clocked, then they can be prosecuted, as happened with DC Cook.

The IMVA provides a mileage verification service by contacting previous owners and cross-referencing with available DVLA and other data. So something is being done and soon private buyers will have access to more than 10 million recorded mileages through HPI-Equifax, which already provides information about the legal status of used cars.

The DVLA has introduced a voluntary scheme whereby the seller completes a mileage declaration on the V5. There are calls for this to be made a legal requirement and follow the example set in America by the Truth In Mileages Act, but of course, owners can still lie. The RAC agrees with that principle and is campaigning for the mileage to be recorded whenever the vehicle is re-taxed, tested and sold. It also wants tamper-proof odometers.

At the heart of the problem is the attitude of buyers and sellers who put all the emphasis on mileage as opposed to the condition of the car for sale. It is a fact that a vehicle that has covered 60,000 motorway miles in three years will be in better mechanical condition than a car that has pottered around a suburb and just reached five figures, but that's another story.

What may be needed is a radical overhaul of used vehicle pricing structures, so that a big distinction is made between a warranted mileage and other vehicles that do not have histories. According to Autoglass, which has just produced a survey called Travel and the Superhighway, smart cards will track cars from the factory to the scrapyard making it impossible to fiddle the car's records. The service history can be instantly read by buyers, garages, police and insurance companies. But that's the future.

For the moment, however, don't believe what you read on the mileometer.

How to spot a clocker

No service history. Odometer replaced. Doctored, incomplete service records. Interior trim worn. Fresh paint. Tatty MoT certificates. No registration document. Ask previous owners to confirm mileage.

How to stop the clockers

Big fines. Legal requirement for mileage disclosure. Review of mileage pricing structure. Education of buyers, look at condition, not mileage. Get an independent engineer's report.