1. "It's our pleasure to confuse you."
It seems like everyone's got a DMV horror story. For Mike Hume, a
sports journalist, it came after a move from Connecticut to Virginia,
when he headed to the DMV to transfer his out-of-state license. It took
four visits and roughly three hours of standing in line to get it. The
problem? Everything from not bringing enough or the right forms of ID
to having his records confused with those of another driver of the same
name. After an estimated 20 hours of DMV-related work over the course
of a week, Hume finally received his license, and just in time: It was
the day before his old one expired. "I consider myself a smart guy,"
Hume says. "But it doesn't matter. Everyone can be a victim at the
DMV." (A Virginia DMV spokesperson says, "We have a high standard for
meeting customer expectations, and have a large number who are
Making sense of the DMV is an $11.5 million business for DMV.org,
an unofficial guide to state rules and peccadilloes. "DMV.org was
created to bridge the gap between consumers and the government," says
founder Raj Lahoti. Indeed, the site gets five million visitors a month
hoping to ace their next DMV visit.
2. "Your used car could be a ticking time bomb on wheels."
those pics of flooded car lots after Hurricane Katrina? You could end
up buying one of those cars today and never know it. In the past five
years, the number of flooded cars sold as "used" has doubled
nationwide, according to Carfax spokesperson Larry Gamache.
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Once deemed totaled, cars are supposed to be sold for scrap. But
unscrupulous sellers can buy them at auction, then replace the title at
a Department of Motor Vehicles office in another state by fudging the
document, saying it's lost or retitling in a state that doesn't
recognize "flooded" as totaled. The practice isn't just deceitful; it's
downright dangerous, says Gamache, as Diane Zielinski found out. She
bought her teenage son a used Grand Am thinking she'd gotten a great
deal — until the engine exploded as he was driving. "He could very
easily have been killed," she says. A Carfax report revealed the car's
title had been branded "flooded" after Hurricane Floyd, then
reregistered in Pennsylvania. If you're buying a used car, Gamache
recommends having a mechanic inspect it first. And screen the car's VIN
through the free database at carfax.com/flood.
3. "When it comes to car theft, we're part of the problem."
There's another way criminals take advantage of flimsy DMV car records:
"VIN cloning," a kind of vehicle laundering. A stolen car's
vehicle-identification number is switched with that of a junked car,
and a clean title is obtained from the DMV. To combat this practice,
the 1992 Anti-Car Theft Act authorized the creation of a database,
known as the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, which
allows state DMVs to verify a car's title, theft and damage history
before issuing a new title. But 15 years later only 30 states belong to
the network, and those that don't, including California and Illinois,
are havens for car thieves and chop shops. "Until all 50 states
participate, the system is full of holes," says Rosemary Shahan, of
Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, a nonprofit
Car theft costs Americans $7.6 billion a year, according to the
National Insurance Crime Bureau. Who benefits? Organized crime, for
one. But the stakes are higher than grift money. Perpetrators of the
first World Trade Center bombing and the Oklahoma City Federal Building
bombing were traced with the help of VINs.
4. "Consistency is the hobgoblin of...well, not us, that's for sure."
Rules that differ by state (and city, and county) may be a problem for
law-abiding drivers, but for those looking to slip through the cracks,
they're a godsend. For example, emission checks are required for
registration in 13 states and in parts of another 17 states, but not at
all in 20 states. And since every state has different plates, says
Ashly Knapp, founder of Auto Advisors, a consultancy for car buyers,
police can't tell if an out-of-state license is expired until they can
see it up close. Some drivers register a car in a state with lower
taxes, then drive it in their own state with expired plates. "I'm
impressed how many people tell me they get away with it," Knapp says.
Worse are loopholes for drunk drivers. Repeat offenders get listed in
the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's National Driver
Register, but records for those with one DUI are often confined to one
state — meaning you might get a clean driving record simply by hopping
states, says Jason King, of the American Association of Motor Vehicle
Administrators. The proposed Real ID Act could fix these problems, King
says, by forcing states to share driving records in a national
5. "You think getting your license is a hassle — try filing a complaint."
institution has problems, but the DMV is notorious for its surly
service. Newlywed Laura Zhu tried to get a license with her maiden name
as her second middle name. When she explained this to the DMV worker at
a New York City office, Zhu says the woman yelled at her, "You have to
hyphenate if you want two last names!" After speaking with a supervisor
and finding out that it is indeed state policy to hyphenate, Zhu says
she was sent back to the same window. That's when things got ugly.
"Little Miss Doesn't-Want-to-Hyphenate wants a license now," the clerk
announced loudly, then proceeded to sing a little tune as she worked:
"Anderson hyphen Zhu! Anderson hyphen Zhu!"
The online complaint form Zhu filed about the incident promised a
five-day response — but at press time, Zhu says she's been waiting well
over a month. New York State DMV spokesperson Ken Brown insists online
complaints usually receive a prompt response and says Zhu's letter must
have encountered technical problems. Other ways of filing a complaint
include talking with the supervisor or sending a letter to the office