Ethical dilemma alert! Should Libby disclose her car's true mileage?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Feb 01, 2008

Dear Tom and Ray:

My boyfriend recently diagnosed (correctly, I assume, since all the idiot lights are no longer glaring at me all the time) a problem with the instrument cluster in my 1999 Grand Prix. He was able to pick up a replacement at the salvage yard and install it himself, saving a couple of hundred dollars from the dealer quote. I'm happy because my car works fine now. Unfortunately, the car the replacement was taken from had fewer miles on it than mine, and I'm worried about what will happen when I go to trade this one in. Do I keep my mouth shut, like he says, and hope that nobody will notice? Or, if I tell the dealer, will the mileage police haul my trusting rear end off to jail? I'd really like to get a new car before something else goes wrong with this one, but I'm scared. Help me! -- Libby

TOM: Libby, you are facing a classic ethical dilemma. You have been handed, through no fault of your own, something that will increase the resale value of your car, but at the expense of some other, innocent buyer.

RAY: So, the ethical question is, Do you spend all the extra money yourself, or do you have to give half of it to your boyfriend?

TOM: Actually, this is not a dilemma at all, Libby. We can tell that you're an honest person at heart (unlike your sleazeball boyfriend!), so you simply have to follow the rules set out by the state you live in.

RAY: They're different in every state, but the common element is disclosure.

TOM: You are required simply to inform any future owner of the car that the mileage reading on the odometer is not the actual mileage of the car.

RAY: Some states require that the person doing the repair place a sticker under the odometer; some require that a form be filed with the state Department of Motor Vehicles; some require you to note the difference on the car's title.

TOM: But everybody knows that odometers and speedometers DO break. And you're entitled to replace yours with a new or a used one. Neither you nor your sleazeball boyfriend did anything wrong by doing that.

RAY: But if you fail to disclose it, and cheat some poor person into buying a car with 30,000 more miles than he or she thinks it has, then you're setting up a karmic reaction that will result, someday, in an expensive transmission rebuild for you, and a ferocious and highly contagious rash in an inconvenient location for your boyfriend.

TOM: So check with your state DMV and do whatever is required to disclose the new odometer reading, and then you can stop worrying about it forever, Libby.

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