There’s a wonderful scene in the movie Matilda in which the irascible Harry Wormwood (played by Danny DeVito) uses an electric drill to roll back the odometer of a car he intends to flog off on some unsuspecting sap of a consumer. His precocious and lovable daughter exclaims, “Daddy, you’re a crook. This is illegal. Don’t people need good cars; can’t you sell good cars?” It’s an innocent, honest and raw reaction to her father’s unconscionable business practice.
And while movie viewers watch the little numbered wheels of Harry’s odometer spin blurrily in reverse, many take comfort in the fact that a wannabe Harry Wormwood couldn’t perpetrate that deception today, because modern electronic odometers can’t be tampered with, right? Or can they?
“Unfortunately, they can. Easily,” explains Terry O’Keefe, Director of Communications and Education for Ontario’s vehicle sales regulator, OMVIC. “For a few hundred bucks an unscrupulous seller can order what they need off the internet, hook it up to a vehicle’s computer, and a few seconds later — voila, that high mileage, near end-of-life vehicle has found the fountain of youth.”
According to OMVIC rolled back odometers are very rarely an issue with vehicles sold by Ontario-registered dealers, in part because the possible ramifications are so “severe”; but where it is problematic, is with vehicles sold by curbsiders.
Curbsiders are illegal, unlicensed dealers. They often pose as private sellers, though increasingly many operate from small automotive businesses (repair shops, rental companies, etc.). Curbsiders not only misrepresent themselves — they often misrepresent the vehicles they sell: many are previous write-offs with undisclosed accident-damage or are odometer-tampered. And unfortunately, they’re prevalent.
“ Any consumer thinking of buying privately must take steps to protect him or herself …”
A recent study commissioned for OMVIC found 28.7 percent of private vehicle classified ads in a popular online marketplace in Ontario were placed by curbsiders; this, in a province known for its aggressive anti-curbsider activities and enforcement. In BC, the research showed a staggering 61.2 percent of ads belonged to curbsiders; in Quebec, it was 55.1 percent. “These are alarming stats,” states O’Keefe. “Any consumer thinking of buying privately must take steps to protect him or herself and learn how to spot some of the common tactics employed by curbsiders.
Because, while OMVIC can investigate and prosecute them, consumers who do business with curbsiders have no protection and little recourse other than through the courts.” That is of course, if the consumer can even find the seller again. While OMVIC commits significant resources to curbsider enforcement, there is simply no way to stop them all. So consumers must educate themselves and learn to spot some of the telltale signs they might be dealing with a curbsider, including:
• the seller has no obvious address – will only meet in public
• the seller has multiple vehicles for sale
• the vehicle is not registered in seller’s name or has only been registered for a short period of time
• the vehicle cannot be taken for a prepurchase inspection (e.g. seller refuses or vehicle not plated/insured)
• the vehicle is priced below market value
If Matilda was set in 2016 Ontario, Harry Wormwood’s role would undoubtedly be that of a curbsider, and yet his response to his daughter’s rebuke would likely remain unchanged: “Listen you little wiseacre, I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong and there’s nothing you can do about it.” It’s the wily (and arrogant) attitude of many curbsiders; certain they can dupe uneducated consumers into buying rebuilt wrecks or vehicles with rolled back odometers. Only by becoming an educated consumer can you protect yourself from curbsiders, only then can you assure yourself you won’t be, to quote Miss Trunchbull, the tyrannical headmistress of Matilda’s school, “an ignorant little slug… a witless weed… an empty-headed hamster… or a stupid glob of glue.”
OMVIC maintains a public list of all curbsider convictions. To learn more about curbsiders and other car-buying tips, visit omvic.ca.