Odometer and dealer sticker on used car did not reflect true mileage

[Reposted from the “Ask Consumer Ed” column of the Georgia Attorney General]:

I bought a car at a used car dealership. The sticker on the window read “89,000 Miles” and the odometer reflected the same number. The paperwork the dealer gave me had the same mileage but also had “TMU,” which means “true miles unknown.” I now want to return the car because I discovered through an AutoCheck vehicle report that the car actually has 300,000 miles on it. The dealer is saying I can’t return it. Help!

Consumer Ed says:

Under these circumstances, you may have limited options in returning or refunding your vehicle if, as appears to be the case, the dealer correctly disclosed the vehicle mileage. Federal law requires sellers to disclose the miles on the odometer, and, if the seller knows that the odometer reading is different from the number of miles the car has actually traveled, include a disclosure indicating the true miles are unknown. It appears that the dealer who sold you this car made the appropriate disclosure to ensure that you knew the 89,000 miles odometer reading was inaccurate.

You may still have some recourse, however, if you can show that the dealer knew the actual vehicle mileage at the time of sale. If the dealer knows the real mileage, then he or she must disclose that number and is not lawfully able to hide a higher odometer reading by using the “TMU” designation.

Clearly, at some point, the vehicle odometer was altered. Although not necessarily suggested by these facts, it is possible the dealer may have unlawfully manipulated the odometer reading. AutoCheck may be helpful in determining the approximate time the odometer discrepancy occurred. If the appearance of this discrepancy coincides with the dealer’s purchase or acquisition of the vehicle, this could suggest the dealer unlawfully altered and/or replaced the odometer and then disclosed the mileage as “TMU” in an effort to cover its actions. The law prohibits sellers from changing the odometers in this fashion and misusing the “TMU” disclosure. Both of the instances above would be an unfair and deceptive practice under the Georgia Fair Business Practices Act as well as under applicable federal law. You may have a claim under these laws if you can prove the dealer engaged in these practices.

With very few exceptions, however, purchasing a used car is an activity that is almost always at the buyer’s risk. Unless you can show that the dealer knew the real vehicle mileage or altered the odometer to begin with, you may be stuck with your higher-mileage vehicle. You can visit the website of the Department of Law’s Consumer Protection Unit at www.consumer.georgia.gov to learn more about your rights in these situations or to file a complaint against the company.