Who owns that car?
That question seems to pop up anytime you spend some time on the road or are looking to buy a used vehicle. With the power of the internet, this query seems like a piece of cake. Want to know the identity of the driver who swerved into your lane and cut you in traffic? Or how about the owner of the car you want to buy?
You’re just a few keystrokes away!
Hold your horses.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. Despite having near-unlimited access to information these days, you can’t Google a car owner. That protected information is not available to the public due to existing regulations. While it’s true that with the correct pieces of information, you can track down the registered owner of a vehicle, that’s not all there is to it.
You Need to Tell the Authorities “Why.”
Did you know that you can face prosecution for lying to a government official?
Say hello to Section 1001, Title 18 of the United States Code – the same one that put Martha Stweart behind bars. The code states that it is a federal crime to willfully and knowingly make a materially false statement to the authorities. Lying about the reason why you want to find out who owns a particular car can get you in trouble.
You must have a valid reason for wanting to know the identity of the person who owns a particular vehicle.
Valid reasons may include:
- You’re about to purchase a vehicle and want to confirm it’s not stolen.
- The transfer of vehicle ownership into your name.
- You’re buying a car and would like to know more about the ownership history.
- You are a victim of or a witness to a hit-and-run accident.
- You’re reporting a suspicious always vehicle parked in front of your property.
- Someone left a vehicle in your property, and you would like to track down the owner so he can remove it.
Trying to get personal information without a valid reason is a prosecutable crime in some states. You may end up paying a fine (or worse) if you can’t provide a reasonable explanation on why you need the information. If your reasons are a little more personal, you may have to hire someone licensed to search for you.
Why All the Security?
Everyone has a right to individual privacy.
You wouldn’t like it if you got trolled by someone who claims you almost ran his car off the road. Worse, an irked driver may stalk and harm another one if it was easy to get vehicle information online. Privacy and security are some of the reasons why the U.S. government regulates who has access to this kind of information.
Title XXX of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act is the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994 (DPPA). The DPPA is a United States federal statute that governs the disclosure and privacy of personal information gathered by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
Before the law passed in 1994, there was an increase in cases involving the harassment of abortion patients and providers. Anti-abortion groups used public driver’s license databases to find and target people. The DPPA put a stop to all these shenanigans, making it harder to get personal information for nefarious purposes.
Steps for Finding a Vehicle’s Owner
Now that the legalities are out of the way, let us explore the steps that can help you track down a vehicle owner.
Step 1: the VIN.
The first step involves getting the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) of the car you want to search. If you previously owned the vehicle, you might have old records containing the VIN. If not, you can find it on a metal plate on the driver’s side dashboard or the driver’s side door jamb. VIN lookups are essential in gathering the information and history of a vehicle. However, these do not include personal details about the owner.
Step 2: the DMV.
Now that you know the VIN of the car, go to your local DMV and fill out a form to request information on the vehicle’s current owner. Please note that vehicle ownership information is under the protection of the DPPA. You must provide a valid reason to the DMV before filling out the form or face prosecution. Legitimate reasons include theft, accidents, or transfer of ownership.
You need to ask for a Request for Information form from the local DMV or the agency’s website in your state. It’s important to be on the correct site for your location because the name “DMV” isn’t used in every state. Fill out the form completely, sign it, and attach the payment if applicable.
Step 3: the Local P.D.
If you have the license plate number of the vehicle, you can go to the local police department for help. Again, the DPPA is in effect here, and you must have a valid reason. The police can help your search efforts only if the matter is criminal (theft) or it’s a safety issue (drunk driving). For instance, if you were the victim of a hit-and-run, the police can track down the suspect by running the tags.
Step 4: the P.I.
If you can’t find the time or if your search is for more personal reasons, you can hire a private investigator. Be sure to get someone local, because he/she knows the area better. The DPPA allows licensed private investigators to search public records to find a vehicle’s owner.
Step 5: join a Public Record Database.
The final step is joining a public record database to do a license plate lookup using a car’s plate number. License plate numbers change for every owner, and you may get a false positive if the tags are fake or haven’t been registered in a while.
If your reasons for wanting to know who owns a vehicle are legit, the process is relatively easy to do using the steps outlined above. Please bear in mind that the DPPA safeguards the information, so you need to practice due diligence and follow all the guidelines during your search.