‘This was intentional’: Mechanic warns of engine light tape scam

A pre-purchase inspection could have saved this buyer thousands of dollars
Published: Jun. 6, 2022 at 12:52 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 9, 2022 at 7:09 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (CBS46) - Wanda King-Whitby was cruising through the listings on Auto Trader and Craigslist when she found the right car at the right price.

It was a 2006 Toyota Camry with just over 151,000 miles. She liked it; she drove it; and she said, the salesman told her there was nothing wrong with it. She paid $4,000 and drove it home.

“He just told me that the vehicle was in good shape,” King-Whitby said. “It did not need any repairs; I did not need an emission and I shouldn’t have any problems with it.”

Like most car buyers, King-Whitby opted to skip a pre-purchase inspection. Almost immediately, she said, the car had issues.

“It seemed like the transmission slipped or the engine slipped,” she said.

A mechanic at Theo’s Automotive in Peachtree City, Georgia, performed a post-purchase inspection and found issues should have kept the car off the road. The car had been poorly repainted and there were signs the roof had been crushed.

But that was just the beginning.

This is what mechanics found when pulling apart the dash of Wanda King-Whitby's newly...
This is what mechanics found when pulling apart the dash of Wanda King-Whitby's newly purchased Toyota Camry. (WGCL)

Decades ago, the only way to reduce a car’s odometer car was by removing the instrument cluster and manually rolling back the miles. But in the digital age criminals have an easier option.

In King-Whitby’s case, the original instrument cluster had been removed and replaced with one with fewer miles. Samantha Stout, a service advisor at Theo’s, found the discrepancy on the vehicle’s Carfax report.

“It says that the mileage was 151,000 with a note of mileage inconsistency,” Stout said. “The mileage before that was 248,000 miles.”

By replacing the instrument cluster, someone reduced the car’s mileage by 97,000 miles.

Glen Berry, a service manager at Theo’s, showed us the instrument cluster after it was removed. It looked normal, until he pulled back the semi-transparent cover covering the warning lights. Berry says when you press start or turn the ignition, cars are designed to display all warning lights as a self-check.

On Whitby’s Camry, everything lit except for the check engine light.

“Upon trying to see why it doesn’t work, we actually started peeling the covering back and you can see they put a little piece of electrical tape on it to black out where that light was on,” Berry explained.

By covering the check engine light, Berry said a seller could make it appear there was nothing wrong with the car and that it would easily pass emissions.

“This was intentional,” Berry said. “They knew what they were doing.”

CBS46 went to AP Auto Repairs in Douglasville, Georgia, and asked the sellers for an explanation. Employees of the company claimed the car’s previous seller must have tampered with it.

King-Whitby has since received a $4,000 cash refund from AP Auto Repairs.

Whitby said the money is going into the bank, but when she buys her next used car, she will pay for a pre-purchase inspection.

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