Odometer fraud - the resetting of automobile mileage counters to make it appear that the car has been used less than it actually has - is costing American consumers an estimated $1 billion dollars a year, and there may be little that can be done about it.

In testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee's consumer subcommittee yesterday, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration head Joan Claybrook said her agency believes that "the easy alternation of odometer readings must be brought to a halt."

But, other testimony revealed, that is easier said than done.

Donal Wolfslayer, Chrysler Corp. manager of vehicle security told the subcommittee that Chrysler has given up trying to develop an odometer that could not be rolled back and still be easily serviced.

"Even if we could," he said, "a professional crook could probably beat any system any of us could devise - or he could easily replace the odometer with one he stole from another car or picked up in a junk yard. Where there's a will, there's always a way."

Instead of developing a tamperproof odometer, Wolfslayer said, Chrysler devised one using an ink marking system that shows it has been tampered with.

Assistant United States Attorney for the southern district of New York State, Patricia Hynes told the subcommittee about a grand jury investigation there looking into "the widespread pattern and practice of rolling back odometers by used car wholesalers on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, New York."

With the help of the FBI, she said, three major used car wholesalers, their principal officers and some of their employees have been indicated in the continuing investigation into rollbacks.

Some schemes involved car titles being "washed" through South Carolina allowing for eventual rollbacks, she said. "It was possible to obtain a South Carolina title which did not have a mileage statement," merely by sending for one through the mail, she said.

Another Hynes story concerned a mechanic who has already pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentence.

"He would walk up and down Jerome Avenue," Hynes said, "witha car containing his tools . . . When a wholesaler wanted a car 'clocked' or 'kicked' he would signal to the mechanic. The fee was $10. The time involved was 5 to 10 minutes. His tools are hand made to enbale him to get at different types of odometers."

In his opening remarks, subcommittee Chairman Sen. Wendell Ford (D-Ky.) said, "I have come to question whether there is such a thing as a tamperproof odometer."

"Odometer fraud is estimated to cost the American public more than a billion dollars a year," he said. "Stamping out this widespread deception of the public must be given the highest priority by this subcommittee and NHTSA."