WOODLAND HILLS (CBS) — A six-month CBS2 News investigation into odometer fraud uncovered cars that may have had their miles turned back before ending up at some of the biggest car dealerships in Los Angeles.
One man could be responsible for people paying hundreds or thousands more than they should have for used cars. And we are talking about a lot of cars.
"How big do you think this is," I asked Vito Scattaglia of the DMV?
"Very easily hundreds of vehicles, based upon what you captured on film… Conceivably in the thousands." Scattaglia said.
With hidden cameras we watched Shamai Salpeter for six months outside his Woodland Hills home.
He was using a device that could illegally lower the mileage on a car, potentially increasing the value for the owner, like one man who we saw at the house. We will not reveal his identity, because he hasn't been charged with a crime.
"Did you have the odometer rolled back on the white Suburban," I asked?
"No," the man replied.
Lower miles would also raise the resale value of a used car and deceive buyers into thinking it's in better condition.
Some of the cars may have unknowingly ended up in the hands of dealerships all across L.A., including one of the Southland's largest -- Galpin Ford.
Here's what they have to say.
"I think this guy is a bad person. He's insidious. He's evil," said Alan Skobin.
Officials call it rolling back the odometer. They say it's almost unheard of since mechanical odometers were replaced by digital readouts, which were supposed to be foolproof.
But not so for Salpeter.
"No problem, whenever you're ready I can take care of it no problem," he said as our undercover producer brought a truck to his house. There was no doubt what he was going to do.
"You're going to help me out with the mileage, right," our producer asked?
"Whatever you need, that's what I will put. Whenever you decide, I'm charging $200 for those," Salpeter said.
"How much can you roll it back," our producer asked.
"Any amount that you need," he replied.
But Salpeter was quick to point out he called it something else.
"If somebody tell me, 'listen, I have to roll it back,' I'm not rolling back, I'm fixing… Because legally I have to protect myself," Salpeter said as our hidden camera rolled.
Salpeter then cautioned our producer not to "fix it" too far back, because if there are records of the odometer reading he could get into trouble.
"When you do smog check they are writing the odometer, you cannot be less than that. You understand? If you are less than that you have a problem," Salpeter said.
We were not the only ones who wanted a fix. During our six-month investigation we saw Salpeter working on an endless stream of cars and collecting cash money.
We saw luxury vehicles like Mercedes, BMWs, Jaguars, Porsches and other cars like Fords, Jeeps and Toyotas.
Sometimes we would see him take apart the dashboard. Other days he would just attach a handheld device under the dash. It would be connected for just about ten or fifteen minutes and he was done.
"He is bringing up the settings for going in to modifying the mileage," auto theft expert Mike Bender after we showed him the video.
"This is a larger problem than anyone realizes. They don't think they're hurting anyone and it's affecting people all the way down the line. Every time a car sells, all the mechanical problems, and it's a huge financial impact on people," Bender added.
Some of the cars we saw were leased, which typically carry a big penalty if someone goes over the allotted mileage.
Others were owned outright, like one Mercedes we saw.
The driver showed up at Salpeter's house in December. Salpeter worked on the dash like the other cars and the man drove home all the way to Compton.
A month later he denied doing anything wrong.
"Did you have the odometer rolled back on your Mercedes," I asked him?
"No, I did not," he said.
"He worked on your car," I questioned?
"He's just a friend of mine," he replied.
He did not want to talk and quickly drove away with his trunk still open.
A white Suburban showed up on September 19. Behind some trees Salpeter hooked up the device to the dash. A few minutes later he was done and the owner of the car drove away.
Later that day he traded the Suburban in at Mercedes of Calabasas.
DMV records showed he attested to the miles. The dealership and the new owner did not know they may have been altered.
We caught up to the old owner driving his Mercedes and he also denied it.
"What was he doing to your car," I asked him?
"He was actually checking it because I had something wrong with my fuel injectors," he responded.
Midway through our investigation DMV investigators got a call from executives at Galpin Ford. They got a tip a salesperson may have some connection with Salpeter on cars that were traded in. They are still investigating.
"Are you fearful that you may have sold a used car with the odometer rolled back?
"We know of one situation, quite candidly. I think it resulted from your work, where someone traded in a Mazda," Skobin said.
We videotaped the Mazda back in August at Salpeter's home. It was traded in to Galpin a few days later -- taken in by that same salesperson.
Galpin is also looking into two other cars that the salesperson took as a trade in.
Galpin cooperated with DMV and provided two cars for undercover officers to attempt to get the miles rolled back.
One of them was a Honda that had 63,863 miles when it went in.
After Salpeter took the dashboard apart -- and the investigators paid him $150 -- it came back with 32,614. That's more than 31,000 miles rolled back!
If it was sold, no one would ever have known.
A few weeks later Salpeter was arrested.
"We had one of our undercover producers here and you offered to roll back the odometer for $200," I said to Salpeter.
"No, I never, I never. I fix them. I fix the odometer," he replied.
It seems the fixing is good business. Police found $3,500 in cash in his pocket, six computers and the handheld device in his garage.
How many consumers have bought cars with miles rolled back?
We willl never know the answer to that question, as police believe that every one of the cars that showed up at the house could soon end up at a used car dealer near you.
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