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Scott Adams Finds Out What TTAC Readers Already Know

Last year, I told you that your quick-lube place was probably snitching on you to your insurance company — and to Carfax. Did you make any changes in the way you have your car serviced because of that? I’m thinking that you did not, because you probably have nothing to hide. A surprising number of the commenters on that article were on the side of the insurance companies and Carfax, and their rationale was generally some variant on “I’m not going to commit insurance fraud, nor will I commit odometer fraud, so why should I care if my car’s mileage is in a database somewhere?”

Earlier this week, Scott Adams learned the hard way what you, the TTAC reader, already know about the relationship between small auto business and Big Data. For him, however, the lesson might come at a major cost. Because this time, the data was wrong.

Scott calls it The Paperwork Mistake That Made My Luxury Car Worthless. Here’s the meat of it:

My BMW X5 SUV is in the shop for its third leak-related problem this year… the dealership’s used car manager called and offered to buy it because there is demand for that model in the used market… The used car manager called me later to tell me my car only has “salvage value.” It turns out that the last two times I took it to “Big O” for tire repairs they wrote down my mileage incorrectly. One time they recorded it as 30,000 miles. Another time they said 80,000 miles. The actual mileage is around 50,000.

That double-paperwork-error by the tire shop made its way to the Internet and the CarFax service that dealers use to know whether cars have had accidents or other issues. The mileage discrepancy automatically puts my car in the “probably turned-back the odometer” category. And that means it has no resale value to dealers or anyone else who checked online.

Apparently I can fix this problem by providing documentation of my correct mileage. I probably don’t have that documentation because the only other people who ever checked my mileage were the dealership that is telling me my car is now officially garbage.

This is the problem with Big Data in a nutshell: it’s really, really hard to effectively contradict it without acting in an unethical manner. Scott could fix this problem in a heartbeat by doing the following:

  • Go to local independent shop;
  • Get some service done;
  • Take the receipt home;
  • Photoshop it for mileage and date;
  • Print it out;
  • Crinkle it up;
  • Take a photo of it;
  • Submit it to Carfax.

Extra SUPER GENIUS points awarded if he changes the phone number to his own Google Voice number then “verifies” the receipt when some $8/hr call-center employee from Carfax checks it out.

Of course, Scott doesn’t need to do any of this. He is wealthy enough for this to be a trivial matter, the same way I don’t really care if I sell one of my old Japanese guitars for $250 instead of $350. But few of us can afford to be that cavalier about the value of a major asset.

What’s the takeaway from this? On the micro level, it’s simple: Verify the mileage on your repair paperwork, and retain that paperwork as long as you have the car. That will protect you from anything but a fumble-finger on the part of the person reporting to Carfax, and it will give you a resolution path if you need it.

Viewed in a larger context, this is the sort of thing that should keep American parents up at night. It is the effect of the “chabuduo” culture that we’ve imported along with the uncounted and unaccountable millions of immigrants to this country. That’s also how we got “Dutch” elm disease and the emerald ash borer that destroyed the old-growth trees of my neighborhood; a bunch of people who grew up not giving a shit about anything having an uneasy interface with the traditional American systems.

My child, and your children, will have to grow up in a country where the old rules no longer apply. We take a lot on faith in the United States. We drive over bridges without fear and we do 75 mph over blind hills on the freeway because we believe that there won’t be a foot-deep pothole on the far side. We don’t double-check the work that our mechanics or electricians or doctors perform. And we don’t read the mileage on our service receipts because we trust that the person in the shop took the absolutely minimal extra effort required to make sure that the mileage is at least in the rough ballpark of reality.

All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Our children will learn to cope in a country where most people are doing the minimum possible to get by and the word of Big Data is incontrovertible. It’s enough to make me want to take my Quietus and die in my favorite Natuzzi chair while listening to a Jason Vieaux disc. Unfortunately, as a parent I don’t get to check out before the job is done. So batten down those hatches, ladies and gentlemen, and prepare for a lifetime of (self-)service. And if you’re dealing with “Big O” Tires, then you should make sure that you look twice at the receipt.

[Image: By Ildar Sagdejev (Specious) (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

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