JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Nearly 10,000 vehicles in Mississippi have odometers that have been altered, according to CARFAX, and federal investigators have charged three people in the last two years for committing this federal crime.
Most recently, the U.S. Attorney’s Office charged Oscar Baine of Gulfport with one count of conspiracy and two counts of tampering with motor vehicle odometers.
Investigators believe Baine forged titles and rolled back vehicles with three different used car dealerships he controlled on the Gulf Coast, according to the document filed in the U.S. District Court’s Southern District last week.
While that case is just beginning, another one ended in February with guilty pleas from a son from Madison and his Jackson father -- who also committed odometer fraud on more than 200 vehicles.
Most of those were sold in Hinds, Rankin and Warren counties, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Keesha Middleton.
“Once they rolled back the odometers on the cars, they would sell those cars to dealerships. So those cars were sold to consumers, ultimately," Middleton said.
For four years, Zachary Longgrear and his father Mark took people all over the Jackson metro for a ride, using vehicles with odometers that had been altered.
Middleton, who served as the Longgrear case’s lead prosecutor, discovered an elaborate conspiracy that even stretched across state lines.
“The duo charged in this case would look for cars that had extended gaps in their CARFAX or AutoCheck reports, and that allowed them to know how far they could roll that vehicle back,” she said.
Nationwide, CARFAX reports 1.6 million cars have altered odometers.
While Mississippi’s number -- 9972 -- is much lower than many states, it still shows that the practice remains alive and well here.
The practice itself seems fairly simple, using a device anyone can purchase online for under $200.
That device plugs into the vehicles ODB-II port, usually located underneath the steering wheel, which allows anyone to access the vehicle’s computer and diagnostics system.
One YouTube video showed tens of thousands of miles could be erased from a vehicle’s odometer in seconds.
Middleton said after the Longgrears did that, they would have to fill in the new mileage on the vehicle’s title, which meant sometimes requesting a replacement title from the Mississippi Department of Revenue.
“They would request power of attorney and basically forge the owner’s signature, saying that they are assigning their company, which was Southern Auto Buyers LLC, the right to sign the owner’s name, and that would allow them to get the new title," Middleton said.
In Mississippi, replacement titles must also have a lien release that accompanies it, so they forged those, too.
“They would take a legitimate lien release, cut off the notary seal, and they started pasting it on doctored lien releases and attach that with the fraudulent paperwork.”
Both men pleaded guilty to conspiracy to roll back odometers.
Mark Longgrear owned up to the charge of tampering or filing fraudulent titles, too, and got a longer prison sentence: 57 months.
His son, Zachary, received 28 months in prison.
Altogether, the two men will also have to pay more than $1.5 million in restitution, according to federal documents.
That case -- and its far-reaching implications -- mean that it’s incredibly important for consumers to do their research before buying a used vehicle.
“This is one of the biggest investments we as individuals make, is our car. And not only the loss of value in our car, but the danger to ourselves and our families with these vehicles that we’re driving around, that we don’t know what the real mileage is," U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst said.
Middleton said those looking for used cars, even from reputable dealerships, should do a few things first, like bringing a professional with you, like a mechanic.
“What you need them to look for is any wear and tear on that vehicle and make sure that wear and tear coincides with the miles that’s on that vehicle,” she said.
If the vehicle’s exhaust pipes or brake pedals look noticeably worn, that could be a red flag.
Also, consumers should request CARFAX and AutoCheck reports to look at the history of the car.
Each time a vehicle is serviced, the odometer is logged.
Those companies check to make sure a vehicle’s miles increase over time -- as they should -- and when they don’t, it gets flagged in their system.
And if you notice a vehicle like this being sold, let the Mississippi Attorney General or the U.S. Attorney’s Office know.
Hurst said his office learned about the Longgrear case through a tip from a used car dealer.
“We’re here to protect the public. We’re here to make victims whole and we’re here to hold those who commit crimes accountable," Hurst said.
While the U.S. Attorney’s Office could neither confirm nor deny any further investigations or even arrests related to the Longgrear case, Middleton said one detail still stays with her.
“The fact that the father had basically coached his son, taught his son, how to do it. That’s what was most surprising to me," Middleton said.