Race against the clock

Will new rules really stamp out the practice of falsifying a car's mileage?
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Will new rules really stamp out the practice of falsifying a car's mileage? By James Ruppert

Time is running out for "clockers". Well, that's according to the Retail Motor Industry Federation (RMI), which has launched a major campaign to stamp out one of the most notorious and costly of car frauds - amounting to at least pounds 100m each year.

Clocking at its simplest involves falsifying a car's mileage reading to show a shorter distance travelled, to increase its second-hand value. Interestingly, altering the mileage is not in itself an illegal act, but selling a clocked car, whether or not the seller knows it to be so, is an offence.

Recently questions were raised in the Commons when the Labour MP Gwyneth Dunwoody asked the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions whether the Government plans to reduce the incidence of clocking. In reply Glenda Jackson, Minister of Transport for London, described the practice as "deplorable" and went on to say that the Government is reviewing what further measures can be taken.

Christopher Macgowan, chief executive of the RMI, commented: "We are encouraged that the Government is committed to reviewing the law, and hope that they will do so with the utmost speed". But is new legislation really going to stamp out clocking?

The Institute of Trading Standards Administration has calculated that a car's value increases by an average of pounds 30 for every 1,000 miles erased from the odometer. In fact, it can be a lot more for a Mercedes or a BMW, but the point is that any car is worth clocking for the criminally minded motor dealer, or the private seller.

Clocking is simple to do. An unnamed motor trade source explains: "Without giving too much away, all it involves is taking out the section of the dashboard containing the speedometer and then turning the number wheels with tweezers to the mileage required." Digital mileage recorders, the norm on most cars built in the last five years, were hailed as the hi-tech solution to a low-tech clocking problem - except that those with a lap top computer and reprogramming skills can still ply their legal trade via advertisements offering "mileage adjustment", or "correction services". It costs as little as pounds 50 to reset the read-out on many models.

At the heart of the clocking problem is a cosy deceit that low mileage is everything. It makes a car more saleable and profitable, and the buyer feels confident that it is less worn out. But low mileage does not necessarily make a healthy car. A properly serviced vehicle with high motorway mileage is often in much better condition than a town-bound minimal miler.

For all these reasons, it is hard to believe that legislation could change entrenched buying attitudes and the pursuit of illegal profit. The RMI, in partnership with Hastings Direct insurance, has produced a free pamphlet with information on how to buy a good used car and avoid the clockers. And the organisation has also persuaded an MP to table a Private Member's Bill to clamp down on clocking. Among specific proposals to curb the practice is a business registration scheme to identify car dealers and all other parties in the transaction, and to enable a vehicle's history to be monitored. Car auctions would also be better regulated, with proof of identity from those purchasing vehicles, details centrally recorded, and enforcement agencies being allowed to inspect the details on request. Finally, odometer "correction", as it is euphemistically called, would be made illegal - including production of the equipment used to falsify mileages.

It is hard to disagree that the motor trade's image needs a makeover, and regulation may well be a way to do it. Whether it will stamp out clocking is another matter, since criminals and fraudsters have a frustrating habit of sneaking around rules and regulations. Enforcement also costs time and money. I foresee forged documents, false identities and traders operating as private sellers, much as happens now.

However, the problem could be wiped out overnight if buyers simply ignored the mileage and bought a car purely on the basis of its condition.

For a free car-buying booklet, ring Hastings Direct (0800 001066).

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