BMWs are expensive cars, whether you are buying new or used you will end up paying more than what you would for most other car brands. On top of that, you certainly don’t want to buy a BMW that has an incorrect mileage reading. BMWs depreciate significantly faster than most other cars, and you don’t want to be left paying far too much for a mileage altered car.
Unfortunately, mileage on a BMW can be altered and odometer altering has become a more significant problem in recent years. Modern digital odometers have not eliminated the risk of mileage altering, but it has considerably changed how people tamper with odometers.
Let’s take a look at what type of odometer altering can occur on BMWs. Let’s also look at some signs of an altered odometer and some tips on how to detect an altered odometer.
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What kind of odometer altering occurs on modern BMWs?
You might be surprised to find out that there are different ways that an odometer can be modified in modern cars. Years ago an “odometer rollback” meant that criminals would literally take a mechanical odometer and manually rollback the instrument that records a vehicle’s mileage.
The last mechanical odometers were installed in early 2000s cars and digital odometers have long since replaced them. One of the promises of early digital odometers was that they would be far more difficult to tamper with and odometer rollbacks would become a thing of history. Unfortunately, this has not come to pass. Odometer altering has become easier than ever for the mildly tech-savvy criminal armed with a laptop and some programming software.
One method of mileage altering on a BMW is the classic odometer rollback. This is no longer done by physically turning back the mechanical mileage recorder, instead people can use a software program and a laptop to hack into the BMW computer. If done correctly it can be nearly impossible for the dealer to identify whether the car has been rolled back without contradictory mileage records.
A modern method that has become increasingly common on BMWs is “mileage blocking/stopping”. Mileage blocking involves installing a small microcomputer into the car. The microcomputer freezes the mileage in the speedometer. Mileage blocking is a relatively new invention brought on by the digital age and car manufacturers have not yet figured out a way to thwart it.
Mileage blocking has become a problem on new BMWs as a number of people have purchased BMWs with relatively low mileage only to discover that there had been a mileage blocker installed on the vehicle. You can find a number of car owners reporting these kinds of issues in BMW forums online.
Is mileage altering illegal in the United States?
Rolling back an odometer is illegal under federal law and is a felony. Each state also has its own criminal statute banning mileage altering. These crimes are most commonly found in the used car market, but you might be surprised to find out that car manufacturers have been investigated for mileage altering as well. Ferrari ended up in hot water several years ago for allegedly allowing dealers to rollback mileage on vehicles.
That being said, odometer rollback is not a new crime, it has been around for decades, and it is something that prosecutors tend to take very seriously.
Mileage blocking on the other hand remains in a legal grey area. Federal law has thus far failed to adapt in the face of new technology and the results are that mileage blockers are widely available on the internet and DIY installation videos are circulated freely on YouTube. Companies on the internet freely advertise vehicle specific mileage blockers, including for BMWs.
That being said, it is clearly fraudulent to sell a vehicle under a false pretense that the vehicle’s mileage is true. In addition, it is illegal to block the odometer counter on public roads. Vendors sell these blocking devices under the guise that consumers use them for correcting “incorrect odometer data”, however, these tools are often used to make fraudulent vehicle sales.
How to detect an altered odometer
NBC reported in 2019 that there were likely at least 1.6 million vehicles on the road in the U.S with rolled back odometers and that number would likely be significantly higher if we had an accurate estimate of how many vehicles had been mileage blocked.
So there is clearly a significant issue and if you are interested in purchasing a BMW you certainly want to avoid buying a lemon with a false mileage reading. So what are some ways that you can avoid purchasing a mileage altered BMW?
Ask for a Carfax and an AutoCheck report.
Anytime that you seriously consider a used BMW you need to get your hands on an automotive history report. Carfax has long been the industry leader in this area and it is an extremely helpful tool. Carfax will show the mileage for each time the car was registered and in a reported accident.
Once you have your hands on a history report you should compare the mileage reading on the odometer to the report. A major discrepancy between the two may indicate that odometer tampering has occurred. Carfax is not the end all be all of odometer tampering checks but it is extremely useful and will give you a relatively accurate vehicle history most of the time.
Perform a visual inspection.
Visually inspecting a car certainly is not the end all be all of identifying mileage, but there are certain problems that should raise red flags on a car with purported low mileage. Look for rust, significant paint wear, steering wheel wear, and significant overall interior wear.
I fully expect a car with 200,000 miles to have interior wear and maybe some rust depending on the geographic area where it has been driven and the age of the vehicle. On a car with 100,000 miles I do not expect to see rust or significant interior wear. If you find significant wear and tear on a vehicle with low mileage you may be dealing with a tampered odometer.
Have the vehicle pre-inspected.
BMW typically stores vehicle mileage in several different places on the car. The instrument cluster is only one place, but it may also be stored on the CAS module along with other areas. The dealer is often the only place with the software to check the car’s mileage and ensure that it matches up to the instrument cluster.
While this is certainly not a full-proof method in confirming whether the mileage has been altered, it will catch unsophisticated fraudsters who rolled back the instrument cluster but failed to alter the modules.
Some BMW models will alert you when the mileage has been altered.
Some BMWs such as the E90 and F30 series will display a red dot or exclamation mark between the mileage and trip on the instrument cluster if the vehicle detects that the mileage has been altered. The illuminated red dot could simply mean that the instrument cluster was replaced with a used one and nobody recalibrated the modules. But it could also indicate that the mileage has been tampered with. Either way, it is a red flag and a sign that you should move on to the next vehicle.
Many consumers are unaware that it can be extremely easy for sophisticated criminals to tamper with digital odometers, even on a BMW. Odometer rollbacks and mileage blocking is unfortunately a risk that we have to manage when we are buying a used BMW. But the fact that this remains an issue in the used car market should not scare you away from purchasing a used BMW. If you do your due diligence it is highly unlikely that you will end up with a BMW lemon.