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 satisfied.")
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."
Remember 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.
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
. 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
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
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 database. 5. "You think getting your license is a hassle -- try filing a complaint."
Every 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!"
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 manager. 6. "We're just as good at breaking the law as enforcing it..."
DMV employees must deal with the public and handle sensitive
information, but unsavory characters can slip through anyway. Consider North Carolina license examiner
George Sidbury, convicted in 2004 for assaulting a 16-year-old girl
taking her road test, or California DMV instructor Calvin Hoang Cat,
who in 2005 pleaded no contest to 29 charges of fondling or talking
lewdly to teenage girls and women. But more common are the
opportunists, looking to use their position to make a quick buck. New Jersey
, New York
, Virginia, Connecticut
have all uncovered DMV scams in the past 10 years, in which employees
granted driver's licenses to illegal immigrants for a hefty profit. FBI
indictments in a 2006 Oakland, Calif
., case identified 10 people in a black market conspiracy to sell driver's licenses -- five of them DMV employees.
"There's a high demand for valid ID obtained through fraudulent means,"
says Jason King, of the AAMVA. Fraud is a problem on both sides of the
DMV counter, he says, and the fact that so many employees are being
caught shows how committed the DMV is to addressing the problem. 7. "...and we all but enable identity theft."
Identity theft is the No. 1 crime in the U.S., according to Werner
Raes, president of the International Association of Financial Crimes
Investigators. The simplest form, mostly used by beginners, is to ask
the DMV for a duplicate license in someone else's name. Identity
thieves simply tell the DMV clerk that they've lost their license or
that it was stolen, then provide someone else's illegally obtained
information. It's a simple con to pull off. As for the victims, there's
nothing simple about it -- their credit will be ruined as checks start
bouncing and new credit card accounts are opened in their name.
Some state DMVs are beginning to take precautions against identity
theft, such as checking a database of past photographs before renewing
or mailing the completed license to the address provided. Nevertheless,
Raes recommends checking your credit report at least once a year to see
if there's any unusual activity. 8. "Just because you can't see doesn't mean you can't drive."
Everybody thinks they're a good driver, but a 2007 study by
market-research firm TNS showed that one in six drivers would fail a
state test if they took it today. Indeed, most people get their
driver's license in their teens and are never retested. One big problem
over time is vision, which tends to degenerate, says Richard Bensinger,
ophthalmologist and American Academy of Ophthalmology spokesperson.
Physical impairments, along with macular degeneration, glaucoma and
cataracts can make older drivers less safe behind the wheel, and it's
projected that by the year 2025 drivers over age 65 will make up 25% of
the driving population, up from 14% in 2001, according to nonprofit
research outfit the RAND Corporation.
When renewing your
license, vision-test requirements, like everything else, vary by state.
And while the trend is moving toward age-related regulations, according
to a 2007 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
report, 24 states still do not require older drivers to renew more often or have their vision tested when renewing.
Bensinger says that he will sometimes make recommendations about
license restrictions for his patients, suggesting a person shouldn't be
allowed to drive at night or on high-speed roads. But ultimately, it's
the DMV's decision. Family members (along with physicians and police
officers) can likewise recommend that the DMV check up on someone they
think is a danger on the road -- though it varies by state whether such
tips can be made confidentially or not. 9. "Your vanity plate says 'MUG ME.'"
Personalized license plates might seem like a harmless accessory, but
they could make you a more likely target for criminals. Why? Because
they communicate much more than the written message. "Personalized
plates indicate that the person bearing them wants to be noticed," says
, a retired New York City
police officer and founder of a self-defense school in Lindenhurst
N.Y. "The downside of doing things that tend to 'get you noticed' is
that they can get you noticed by the wrong kind of people."
Consumer advocate Tim Duffy agrees, pointing out that plates indicating
the driver is a woman or a senior citizen or both -- as in "Katie's
Grandma" -- are especially problematic. Spotting one of these plates in
a parking lot, a mugger may hide behind or near the car, waiting for
the driver to return. "You don't want to be a victim of a crime," Duffy
says, "and you don't want to make it easier for someone to commit a
crime." 10. "Fake ID? We fall for it all the time."
driver's license is often considered the default form of identification
in the U.S., used to board airplanes, rent cars and open bank accounts.
Yet it's not hard at all to obtain one illegally by taking advantage of
the weakest link in the U.S. identification system: the birth
certificate. "I can show 60 to 70 ways to get a birth certificate,
either fake or real," says Werner Raes, of the International
Association of Financial Crimes Investigators. And as a result, "you
can go in and get driver's licenses all day long in this country, in
any name you want."
Since the Department of Motor Vehicles
also issues alternative nondriver's license ID cards -- a real
state-revenue booster -- the DMV is, in effect, being used as the
leading identification verifier in a country where national security is
increasingly important and terrorism is an ever-looming threat. Yet
it's not their main responsibility. "Their task is to certify that
people can operate a motor vehicle," says Raes.
solution? Raes would argue that it's national identification cards. But
many groups are opposed to the idea, saying the lack of privacy would
overshadow the safety and security benefits. Not to mention create
another civil service bureaucracy for the public to navigate.
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