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How to avoid a clocked car

Internet crooks are offering 'no questions asked' car clocking services - and it could cost you dear. Read on as we expose the scam

Auto Express one, car clockers nil! We have scored a major victory in the ongoing battle against crooks who wind back the mileage of vehicles to rip off motorists. The move follows an undercover investigation into the way criminals are secretly using the popular www.ebay.co.uk auction website.

Sellers were offering to clock cars for £40 a time, allowing dodgy dealers to falsify a motor's history and net thousands of pounds in profit. And we know this, because we've done it! Posing as someone interested in these so-called 'mileage correction' services, we actually got two cars clocked instantly, increasing their value by an incredible £3,000.

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When we told eBay what we'd done - and, more importantly, how we'd done it - its spokesman thanked us for bringing the problem to his attention. After speaking to the site's lawyers, he said: "We are revising our policies so that, in future, these listings will be taken down as soon as we are made aware of them." The spokesman explained that eBay will soon be launching an "encouraging illegal activity" policy, which these clockers would infringe. "It means that if a sale is found to be doing that, it will be taken down from the site," he added.

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Clocking is estimated to cost UK motorists around £100million per year, and it's as prevalent today as it ever was. What's more, this latest scam isn't only for old cars with analogue odometers. The digital ones can be altered just as easily - which is ironic, because they were introduced to try to cut down on the illegal practice!

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So, how did we carry out our sting? We logged on to eBay to find someone willing to clock a car. It wasn't hard - there were several firms to choose from - but we picked one which offered "mileage correction" for digital and analogue odometers on Japanese imports. A statement on the auction page read: "If your car has done 80,000km, we can reset it back to the correct UK mileage, 50,000 miles". Clearly, that's the service provider's justification for doing what he does, but as we could not lay our hands on a Far Eastern import, we thought we'd try our luck with some others.

As the website featured a phone number, we rang to ask if the firm did other cars, too. Not a problem, the man said - what did we have? We made up two models: a Saab 9000 with an analogue read-out and an Audi A4 with an electronic set-up. Amazingly, he claimed both were possible, and he'd even come to us with his kit. We joked that it sounded like he could clock any vehicle and, laughing, he said he virtually could! We made our excuses and put down the phone. It was time to go shopping...

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Our budget didn't allow for us to spend big money on actual cars, so we did the next best thing - we visited a scrapyard. We bought two instrument binnacles from old models, one analogue and the other digital. The former belonged to a Ford Mondeo V6, and all we knew of its history was that it had done 151,490 miles.

Our second odometer was from a written off Hyundai Getz. The electronic read-out was blank because there was no power to it, but all the wires were attached at the back and it was simply a question of working out which ones needed to be connected to a battery. A friendly local Hyundai dealer helped us out here, and we discovered that the Korean supermini had been taken off the road at 30,840 miles.

We got back on the phone to Mr Fixit. Pretending to be a new customer, we told him we had a Mondeo and a Getz that we'd like clocked. We even pretended not to know the mileage of either vehicle, just to see if he was suspicious. But g he didn't care. "Just pack them in a box to me, plus put in a cheque for £80 and a bit of paper with what mileage you want on each," he said.

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We were staggered. He wasn't suspicious that we were sending him two odometers, nor did he question why we didn't know the exact details of the vehicles. A few days later, they came back in the post, reading the mileage we'd asked for. The dials on the Mondeo had gone from 151,490 to 51,490 and the Getz now read 9,000, not 30,840.

If we'd been dodgy car dealers, how much money could we have made? Well, although we don't know either model's age, let's assume the Mondeo is an X-reg from 2001. It should have an average mileage of 50,000 which, of course, is what the clocked figure now reads. According to Glass's Guide, this would mean it's valued at more than £4,000. In reality, it's done 150,000 miles, and should be worth £1,500 - so we've made £2,500 by spending £40 on the clocker's fee and a few quid on postage.

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For the Getz, let's say it's a 53-plate car from 2003, making the 30,840 miles about average. Glass's values it at around £6,200, but with a new mileage of 9,000, the figure is closer to £7,000. The profit margin is less because it's a smaller, newer car, but is still a tidy sum for very little effort and outlay. Total made from these two vehicles? Well over £3,000. Nice work if you can get it!

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The British Independent Motor Trade Association represents used car dealers, and has been trying to crack down on Internet-based clockers such as ours. General secretary Richard Moore praised Auto Express for bringing the scam to the attention of the public. "This makes me so angry," he told us. "eBay has been told about this before and has done nothing. I'm glad it is now, otherwise it would have been guilty of turning a blind eye to a crime."

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He also attacked Trading Standards for not acting against the clockers, saying: "There's a lack of enthusiasm on its part to follow through and prosecute these people. Trading Standards needs a rocket over this. What's happening on eBay is blatant clocking, pure and simple - and it's the honest motorist who is being ripped off."

However, it seems getting the crooks into court isn't that easy. Peter Stratton is lead officer for motoring matters at the Trading Standards Institute. He explained: "Charging them is done under the Trade Descriptions Act 1968, and it's about someone applying a false mileage to a car and offering it for sale. These Internet clockers aren't doing that. Because they're not actually selling the motor on - they're simply altering the mileage for someone else - it's difficult to prosecute them."

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The most alarming thing is that this isn't only about the Web. Specialist auto magazines and class-ified ad newspapers offer 'mileage correction' too. The Internet is simply the latest way for the crooks to take drivers for a ride - and, as a result, clocking is going to be around for a long time yet...

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Pulling The Wool Over The Eyes Of The Public

Why are cars clocked? The obvious answer is to bring down the mileage so the vehicle’s worth increases, but it’s more complicated than that. Jeff Paterson of Glass’s Guide said it’s because the public hasn’t yet cottoned on that today’s models are much more reliable than they used to be.

He told us: “If most people looking for a used car read one has done 100,000 miles or more in a classified ad, they’re warned off because they think of it as a high-miler. If you can turn back the clock, just like you’ve done with a desirable model such as the Mondeo V6, from around 151,000 miles to 51,000, it becomes more attractive.” He said a modern car that’s well looked after can be good for up to 300,000 miles, so having ‘intergalactic mileage’ is no longer such a problem

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Get a history check from an organisation such as HPI or the AA before buying. It’s the best way to find out if there’s anything dodgy in a vehicle’s past. Our product test puts six choices under the microscope. Also try to get in touch with the previous owner via details on the logbook.

Look for a full service history. Ideally you want to see a book full of dealer stamps and a stack of invoices. Be warned, though; as Auto Express proved in Issue 887, fake dealer stamps and even service books can be bought on the Internet.

Does the mileage on all previous MoT paperwork and the service record match up? Are there unexplained gaps in the history?

If the odometer claims that the car has done only 25,000 miles, does the rest of the vehicle say the same thing? Is the bodywork shabby, or the driver’s seat or pedal rubbers worn away?

Beware – the items highlighted above can be replaced. If the car has a new driver’s chair, steering wheel and pedal rubbers, what is the seller trying to hide?

Check that the instrument cluster has not been tampered with. Among the signs, look for badly aligned odometer numbers, burred screw heads and fingerprints inside the clear plastic casing.

If you actually agree to buy the car, check that the mileage is the same when you pick the motor up as it was when you first went along to view. There have been cases of clocking between the two occasions – such practice entices you into the deal but doesn’t break the law.

Think you have seen a car that has been clocked? Immediately contact your local Trading Standards department

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