Dec. 9, 2013 at 7:34 AM ET
When Ryan Barber turned 16, his father went online and bought him a Honda Civic that showed 42,000 miles on its odometer. But they later found out through records that it really had 140,000 miles.
Authorities say it's a growing problem. According to a new report from Carfax, 190,000 cars have their odometers rolled back every year, bilking Americans out of $760 million in lost value and unexpected repairs.
Criminals have been tricking customers for years by rolling back the mileage on the odometer, then selling the car for more money. But now the scam has gotten so profitable, investigators say it's become organized crime.
Ryan and his father, Troy Barber, say they've already had to shell out hundreds for expensive repairs, all for a car worth half what they paid for it. "A wheel could fall off," Troy said. "(I) just didn't want to put my son in that kind of a predicament."
"This has turned into a real nightmare," Ryan said. His dad said they felt "ripped off, lied to, betrayed ... they're thieves, and it's not fair."
"This is a safety concern for everyone, because people are buying cars that have 300,000 miles on (them) and believing they only have 70,000 miles on (them)," said Tom Wilson, central area commander, California DMV Investigations. "Anything can fail. And the concern is, usually they won't find out until it's too late."
TODAY's team went undercover to watch a sting set up by investigators from California's DMV, posing as the buyer of what was advertised as a great luxury sedan with 85,000 miles. That's what the odometer showed too, but the Honda Accord had a secret: According to state records, it had 250,000 miles, nearly triple the number advertised.
With no idea he was about to be arrested, the seller showed off the Honda. Then police moved in.
The seller's name was Murad Alrawashdeh. Authorities say he's been part of a major odometer rollback ring. He denied rolling back the odometer, saying "This is when I bought it, how many miles on it."
But this wasn't the first time Alrawashdeh was arrested for rolling back odometers; he was convicted just months ago of felony theft. He pleaded not guilty to the new charges, including odometer tampering.
Investigators say it's easier than ever for crooks to do it. The reason: Most newer cars have digital displays, simple to hack with little devices widely available online. "You plug it into the car, select the vehicle make and model, and then change the odometer to whatever you want," Wilson explained.
A video posted online shows a car going from over 200,000 miles to 37,000 miles with just a click of the device. "It overrides the entire computer," Wilson said.
So how do you avoid becoming a victim? Before you buy, always ask for the car's service records. Also, have a certified mechanic inspect the car; they can even check the internal computer to see if the odometer has been tampered with.
And finally, there's a way to check the odometer history for free, on Carfax. All you need is the car's Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), the 17-digit code generally printed at the bottom corner of your vehicle’s dash on the driver's side. (Carfax also has helpful information on finding your VIN.)