Unfortunately, the answer isn’t nearly as straightforward as the question.
What was discovered is that regulations differ significantly by state and province and enforcement is often spotty.
Schmidt describes himself as a “farmer and a niche shortline dealer” who spent more the 45 years in the concrete silo construction business in Ontario.
What prompted his question was his purchase of a used John Deere 7820 tractor from a Tennessee reseller, or “jockey” as most industry people refer to them. “I suspected that the advertised hours may had been understated, but the jockey’s answer to my direct question was the new computerized tractor hour meters cannot be tampered with,” Schmidt says.
After purchasing the tractor, he had it shipped to Ontario. Once there, he had a local John Deere dealership download the ECM (Electronic Control Module) only to find that 6,200 hours had been removed. Schmidt says the dealership didn’t get far with John Deere when they inquired about how that hour meter might have been altered. Schmidt says a tech from the dealership contacted John Deere engineering on two occasions and got no response. The tech also spoke with a company rep when he visited the dealership. Again, no answer.
When Farm Equipment followed up with John Deere and presented Schmidt’s Engine Profile Load Information to the manufacturer, the company was non-committal in its response to questions about tampering with hour meters. In an email response, Barry Nelson, manager of media relations for John Deere Agriculture & Turf Division, said the company was unable to respond to this specific instance.
“We have investigated the situation you explained. The only way someone could change hours on a tractor would be to replace or re-program the ECU in the tractor, which is not easy to do,” Nelson said. “We really don’t have enough information about the situation to definitely say that the jockey had changed the hours. We are not aware of other situations where hours are being changed on our tractors.”
As he understands it, if an ECM is changed on a tractor, the total hours in the profile will always add up to fewer hours than those indicated on the header, says Schmidt. When installing and re-programming a new ECM, at a certain step in the process, the hours of the previous ECM must be entered or the program will not allow the technician to continue with the procedure.
• Few states have direct hour tampering laws, but in many cases, persons found guilty of defrauding a consumer by tampering can face a misdemeanor, fine and possible imprisonment.
• If you’re suspicious about the accuracy of the hour meter, request an ECM printout and analyze it closely. If dealer or jockey, refuses, walk away from the deal.
“I believe only newer engines with ECMs leave evidence of having been tampered with,” says Schmidt. “On older equipment with mechanical engines and hour meters, it is a simple matter of changing or rolling back the hour meter. Unless history and service records are available, tampering would be hard to prove on an older tractor.”
While Schmidt has had no major complaints about the tractor he purchased, he remained curious about how its hour meter might have been tampered with, so he dug a little deeper than most tractor buyers might.
During his initial search for used 7820 models, Schmidt says he noticed that the one that he ended up purchasing — as well as one in Texas and one in Michigan — all had identical specs and rubber hood tie down latches, which were not a factory item. Both of the other tractors had 10,000-plus hours. He says it’s now obvious that they all came from the same large sugarcane operation in Florida.
“Seeing this, I grilled the seller of my tractor about the hours and one story he gave was that, because the farm had so many tractors (400-plus), if any tractor needed more than routine service, it was often set aside until they could get to it,” Schmidt says.
The jockey then told him about how he had purchased a large articulated tractor from the same operation that sat for 2 years. When they got around to looking at it, the only problem was it was out of fuel. This was likely the same reason for the unusually lower hours on the unit that Schmidt was purchasing, according to the jockey.
When he inspected the tractor he had bought, Schmidt says, “Some of the wear points didn’t add up.” So, this past February, he visited one of the Florida farms where the tractor was used.
He found that his tractor had come from a large southern Florida sugarcane farming operation. He also determined that this size of tractor is typically used with a 3-point hitch row cultivator and occasionally to pull a fertilizer spreader.
“There was considerable wear on the 3-point hitch arm mounting shaft but no wear on the drawbar,” Schmidt says. “It also came with a full set of front weights, short axles and heavy lift option on the 3-point.
“The farm manager said the company had a good maintenance program and when I questioned whether he would personally purchase one of these tractors when the farm was moving them out, he said that he would.”
Schmidt believes that with the information about how the tractor had been used, the jockey was comfortable removing as may hours as he did because the tractor didn’t show a lot of the common signs of high hours.
On the other hand, he has spent more than $13,000 on repairs at his local John Deere dealership. “And I just realized that the park clutch pack needs to be replaced. The good news for me is that the tractor had a very easy life and it will meet my needs.”
Is tampering with tractor hour meters widespread? It’s nearly impossible to quantify, but some dealers don’t think it’s all that rare.
Presented with the same information that was sent to John Deere, one dealer commented to Farm Equipment, “This is the exact same thing you and I talked about. I bought a tractor that came out of Texas. The hour meter and the internal computer did not match. It looks like there are hackers in every industry.”
An Internet search found at least one company that advertises its “hour meter repair and programming devices.” It says that it is able to reset hour meters for nearly every major tractor brand “to your requirement.”
According to the website www.westcoastspeedometer.com/farm-tractor-hour-meter-programming.html, it offers farm tractor ECU, ECM and BCM hour meter programming for $600.
The company insists that a signed “Hour Meter Recalibration Disclaimer” accompanies every order that it accepts. The disclaimer includes the following statement: “Federal, provincial and state laws require that you state the engine hours upon transfer of ownership. Failure to complete, or providing a false statement, may result in fines and/or imprisonment. Prospeedo.com has advised me of my legal obligation to notify prospective purchasers, that this tractor hour meter has been altered.”
During his investigation, Schmidt says he also learned of another increasingly popular European tune technique that can be used to distort a tractor’s usage.
According to Schmidt, this tuning technique does not leave a footprint on the engine ECM, and the ECM readout will never show more than 100% load even though the engine may be producing 25% more power than stock. “It looks like some good old boys have become computer hackers,” says Schmidt. “It really is buyer beware.”
In response to Farm Equipment’s inquiry about laws that apply to hour meter tampering and the level of complaints about this fraudulent practice, the Iowa attorney general’s office indicated they have not found it to be a significant problem.
Schmidt also followed up with the Ontario provincial dealer regulatory agency and found that hour meter tampering on equipment falls under the same regulation as cars and trucks and is, in fact, illegal. “The first step is mediation between the buyer and the seller. If that fails, it becomes a legal matter,” says Schmidt. The agency couldn’t recall any cases going beyond mediation.
“I’m sure there are a lot of honest jockeys out there and I have a friend who is one, and he also happens to operate in Tennessee. He tells me that jockeys who have altered hours on tractors will often bring the tractors to large consignment sales and other jockeys will buy the tractor and alter the hours a second time before an unsuspecting end user buys the tractor.”
Schmidt says he attended a large southern auction earlier this year and observed the same jockey he bought his tractor from purchase another tractor. Schmidt checked the hours on it. “It is now on his website with over 3,000 fewer hours,” he says.
“If I were purchasing a newer used tractor from a jockey again, after we agreed on the price, I would ask for a dealer tech to come in and download the ECM. If the hours were correct I’d pay the cost of the download,” says Schmidt. “If the jockey squirms or refuses, I’d know what was going on and there’d be no deal.”