Car clocking


Car clockingIn this feature l sophisticated software l online platforms l test case Turning back the clocks Car clocking – the hidden crime: Katie Silvester investigates the robustness of legislation to tackle the epidemic in 21st century Britain, following an undercover investigation by The Sun ‘Sun probe reveals dashboard mileage scam’ screamed the tabloid headline earlier this month, thereby putting the issue of odometer clocking firmly in the public eye. Clocking – the practice of ‘rewinding’ a car’s odometer to make it appear to have done less mileage – is not new, but the digital age has given fraudsters a whole new set of tools with which to pull the wool over the eyes of the car-buying public. The Sun had sent undercover reporters to commercial outlets offering a service that sees them clock a digital odometer using sophisticated software, sometimes for as little as £40. Since The Sun’s piece in late March, The Daily Telegraph, BBC’s The One Show and The Independent have all covered the practice. For CTSI members, the main talking point to come from all the coverage is the extent to which existing legislation is adequate to enable local authorities to bring successful prosecutions against clockers. Some are asking whether there needs to be a change in the law. The Sun was keen to point to what it saw as a legal loophole that allows commercial clocking to be openly touted, because the clocking itself is not illegal; it only becomes a crime when the car is fraudulently sold on. But is there really a loophole, or is it just that local authorities have been reluctant to prosecute because of a lack of resources, or a lack of clarity around the application of existing laws? Most of the successful court cases against clockers in the last few years have been civil law suits. The only prosecution under current legislation has been the case of Colin Ogle brought by the Office of Fair Trading in 2012. This saw Ogle sentenced to nine months in prison for unlawfully adjusting mileage under the 2006 Fraud Act and the 2008 Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations. But, says Gerry Taylor, CTSI lead officer for the motor trade, the fact that Ogle pleaded guilty means the case did not set a legal precedent, because the law – as it applies to car clocking – was not truly tested in court. ‘I firmly believe that local authorities are not taking on cases with less than about an 80 per cent chance of success,’ says Taylor, adding that in these days of austerity, local authorities are very reluctant to prosecute cases that could end up costing them a lot of money. ‘What is absolutely necessary is clarification by doing a test case with existing legislation or by a change in the law,’ he says. Assuming that the UK does not leave the EU later this year, a European Directive will effectively outlaw clocking. But local authorities would like to be able to take action against the practice now. A spokesperson for BIS told TS Today that there are currently no plans to introduce a new voluntary code, or similar, to tackle car clocking: ‘The legislation coming in 2017 will crack down on car clocking. There are no plans to do this by other means.’ They confirmed that, currently, ‘the relevant law for trading standards officers to act on, where the mileage is being reduced with the intent to mislead a would be purchaser, is the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008.’ Anna Soubry, Minister for Small Business, who had been outspoken on the matter, declined to comment. The digital age Before digital odometers became the norm, rogue traders would simply roll back an analogue odometer by taking apart the dashboard and using a screwdriver to wind back the numbers. The advent of digital odometers was meant to bring an end to this duplicitous practice, but instead the digital age has simply ushered in a new ways for car buyers to be tricked into buying vehicles showing false mileage. Digital devices that plug into a car’s onboard diagnostics port are easy to come by. These devices can then get into the engine control unit (ECU) – the car’s central computer system – to adjust the mileage. There are commercial firms that offer the service – such as those exposed by The Sun – but, for some makes of car, devices can be bought online for as little as £15 that will allow car owners to do their own clocking. But, says Essex County Council’s operational manager Peter Stratton, this is only the tip of the iceberg. ‘In these days of computing and printers, someone can so easily falsify all the records. You can go on eBay and buy a blank service book for a BMW 7 series for £5 and you can probably get false information onto the DVSA database without too much trouble – you can register the car to a fictitious address and move it to the new owner within a few weeks. It’s easy to mask what you’ve done. Cars that have been clocked are not usually going to be on a forecourt these days, they’ll be on eBay, Gumtree or even Facebook ‘Sitting alongside that, are all the ways you can sell a car. Cars that have been clocked are not usually going to be on a forecourt these days, they’ll be on eBay, Gumtree or even Facebook. It’s almost totally anonymous. All right, perhaps the legislation’s not great, but that’s not the problem. The problem, to me, is the uneducated consumer not realising how complete the fraudulent criminal activity is.’ Two recent developments are exacerbating the clocking problem, says Tim Milsom, a CTSI lead officer for the motor trade. The first is the rise of personal contract purchase (PCP) finance deals that are popular for cars. Under the terms of the agreement, the car is leased, rather than bought, but there are mileage restrictions on how far the car can be driven each year, with financial penalties for unauthorised additional miles. The second development is the growth in Japanese imports, which provide an opportunity for falsehoods to be inserted into documentation when a car is certified for use in the UK. And, of course, unscrupulous traders are still clocking just to make a quick buck, as they always have done. ‘It’s very tempting, if you’re that way inclined. You can put between £2,000 and £10,000 on the value of a car and that’s very easy money,’ says Milsom. HPI, which runs checks on the history of a car, estimates that car clocking increased by 10 per cent between March and October 2015 alone. It claims that there may be as many as 1.7 million cars with clocked odometers on our roads. Both Stratton and Milsom find it frustrating that car manufacturers do little to help the problem. For a start, more could be done to ensure that the software of an ECU is written in such a way that the mileage simply cannot be fiddled with, or at least not with a £15 gizmo from eBay. On newer models, the advent of telematics means that ECUs are recording a lot of data and sending messages back to the manufacturer, via the internet, to let them know that a service is due or that a technical issue has arisen, so that the manufacturer can contact the car’s owner. A warning could also be emitted if the odometer is tampered with. Safety concerns A further issue with clocking is that there are, of course, safety implications for cars showing a false mileage. Services will not be triggered and there is also the risk of introducing unintended problems to the car’s functioning by tinkering with the ECU. Rod Williams, chief executive of Autodata, which provides technical automotive information, adds: ‘If the mileage has been illegally clocked, vital elements that need to be serviced can be overlooked, which can cause expensive damage to the vehicle and even put the owner at risk.’ Like so many areas of trading standards’ work, officers feel that lack of funding and resources prevent local authorities being able to investigate car traders proactively. Stratton reflects that in the 1980s he and his fellow officers would do frequent spot checks on odometers, which made it much easier to keep on top of the problem. ‘You could go onto a forecourt and take down the mileage of some of the cars,’ he says. ‘You could write off to the DVLA and get the previous keepers’ details. You could then write to them to ask what the mileage was when they sold the car, so you could easily scan the market. That’s not quite so easy to do these days because the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) limits what the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) will allow you to ask for if you haven’t got a good reason to suspect an offence is being committed. So you can’t do that sort of routine work any more. In any one week, 30 years ago, we’d probably have sent off 30 or 40 requests for information. These days, no-one knows the scale of clocking; it’s such a hidden crime.’ And therein lies the problem – with trading standards lacking the resources and legislative back-up to carry out routine spot checks, the scale of the problem cannot be accurately ascertained. But the indicators are that clocking is on the increase with no effective way of stopping it. Credits To share this page, You might also like Katie Silvester is a journalist. click on  in the toolbar Clocking controversy – October 2015 Images: Rittikrai_Pix / Shutterstock In this feature l sophisticated software l online platforms l test case Turning back the clocks Car clocking – the hidden crime: Katie Silvester investigates the robustness of legislation to tackle the epidemic in 21st century Britain, following an undercover investigation by The Sun Car clocking