2022 License Plate Lookup Guide
License Plate Lookups to Find Owner: 6 Must-Knows For 2022
From time to time, you might want to order a license plate search to find out more about someone. Now, this could be for several reasons from recovering a debt to litigation and many more.
No matter what the reason, when you order a license plate search, you need to do it right. But the question is: Where do you start? Also, what are some things you must know?
Fortunately, we’re here to help. In this guide, we’ll show you everything you need to know to find the owner of a vehicle by using a license plate search. More importantly, we’ll show why getting accurate results straight from the DMV is your best option.
With that in mind, let’s dive into a list of 6 frequently asked questions you should know the answers to before ordering a license plate lookup.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW!
1. FINDING THE OWNER OF A VEHICLE BY LICENSE PLATE NUMBER
Only law enforcement and licensed investigators have direct access to the DMV. As such, they’re the only ones that can legally perform a license plate search. So, now the question is: How can you retrieve this information from the DMV if it’s not directly accessible to the public? Simply put, there are two ways: the RIGHT way and the wrong way.
By doing it the RIGHT way, you’ll get accurate and up-to-date information that is legally obtained. In contrast, by doing it the WRONG, you’ll get outdated and inaccurate information and, even worse, you’ll need to subscribe to an unnecessary service that you’ll hardly ever use.
2. LEGALLY SEARCHING FOR SOMEONE USING A LICENSE PLATE OR VIN
In short, it’s perfectly legal to look up the information of the owner or driver of a vehicle by using a license plate search, provided, of course, you have a legitimate purpose. For example, if you want to track down the owner of a vehicle you were involved with in an accident, your search would be legal. However, if you want to find the information of someone who cut you off in traffic, not so much.
3. THE “FREE” LICENSE PLATE LOOKUP
Buyer beware, there are many “free” and “instant” license plate number lookup tools on the internet today. While they are free to search, the results are NOT, and the results you’ll get are far from accurate and not worth much. This is simply because they don’t have direct access to the DMV like licensed investigators do and sell historical, outdated information.
4. RESULTS YOU CAN EXPECT FROM A LICENSE PLATE SEARCH
This depends on the state, but results normally include the owner’s name, address, lienholder information, and more. It’s important to remember that the information you’ll get will vary from state to state.
Fortunately, when using a licensed investigator, you’ll know if you’ll be able to get the information you want before you do a search.
5. ONE TIME PAYMENT VS SUBSCRIPTION SERVICES
With Docusearch, there is no subscription to purchase or commitment to further charges. Simply pay for the search you need and nothing more. In contrast, with subscription services, you’ll need to subscribe to a subscription you’ll hardly ever use and struggle to cancel.
6. “REAL” CUSTOMER REVIEWS
One of the easiest ways to check if a site is a scam or subscription service is to check for user reviews. So, do these websites provide actual customer reviews of their license plate lookup service? Typically, they don’t post customer reviews on their sites. And when they do, it’s often fictitious quotes and reviews.
Ask yourself why they don’t!
1. How Can You Find a Vehicle’s Owner By License Plate Number?
As mentioned earlier, you basically have two options when you want to use a license plate lookup to find information about the owner of a vehicle. You can either do it right and get the information you need. But, you can also do it wrong and get outdated and inaccurate results.
Don’t fall for “Instant” and “Free” scams
Let’s look at the WRONG way first. And let’s get this out of the way from the outset; there is no such thing as a free or instant license plate search.
Despite this, it’s easy to get drawn into “free” and “instant search” options available on the internet. However, like they always say, if it’s too good to be true, it usually is. And in this case, it’s certainly no different.
Sure, these platforms let you search for free, but it’s NOT free to view the results. Simply put, to get the results, you’ll need to pay. Even worse, most of these platforms are subscription services. This means, even if you only want to do one search, you’ll need to pay a monthly subscription.
Let’s now look at the “instant” part. While it’s true that these sites will give you the results instantly, you need to consider the results you’ll get. You see, there are very specific rules relating to license plate searches.
These rules limit the information you’ll be able to find with a license plate search without the consent of the vehicle owners. Also, there are certain specified exceptions to these rules which, depending on the circumstances, permit the disclosure of certain information.
The thing is, these rules and exceptions only relate to current information held by DMVs and not to historical data. So, what happens to historical data? It’s simple, when a State DMV considers their vehicle records outdated, they’ll sell the information. In turn, data aggregators or information brokers buy this data and collect it in their databases.
They’re then able to sell this information to the public through websites that promise free and instant license plate searches. This means, when you search for a license plate on their website and pay for the information, you’ll get the historical information they purchased from the DMV.
Because of this, you’ll get inaccurate and outdated information that’s not worth much. For instance, by the time you get the information, the vehicle has probably been sold to a new owner and its license plate number will probably be associated with another vehicle.
More worrying is that these websites don’t go out of their way to advertise the fact that they’re selling historical information. This means you simply won’t know that the information is outdated.
This also means that the general public is unaware of the fact that they’re buying historical information. In fact, the only way to tell is to take a closer look at the website’s terms of service to discover this fact.
In summary, while free and instant searches might seem attractive, you’d be better off just picking a name out of a hat. That’s why we group these sites right with the ‘get rich quick’ schemes.
Use a licensed investigator on your behalf
Let’s now look at the RIGHT way to do a license plate search. Here, you’ll do a license plate lookup by using a licensed investigator to do the search on your behalf. In this way, you’ll be able to get updated, legal information about the owner of a specific vehicle.
There are several benefits to using a licensed investigator like Docusearch for doing a license plate search:
- Accurate and updated results. Licensed investigators like Docusearch have access to DMV records. In fact, we have access to 38 DMVs that allow access to vehicle registration information. This, in turn, means that you’ll get the most up-to-date and accurate information relating to a specific license plate. Ultimately, compared to the data aggregators and subscription services mentioned above, there’s simply no comparison when it comes to accuracy.
- Affordable pricing. The next benefit of using a licensed private investigator for doing a license plate lookup is pricing. Here, it’s important to consider the value you’ll get instead of only the price. Let’s look at an example. Say you do a license plate search through a subscription service or data aggregator that charges less than an investigator. Then, as mentioned earlier, you’ll get information that’s inaccurate and out of date. You must ask yourself what value you’re getting. The simple answer is not much, as the information provided by these providers is basically worthless. At Docusearch, in contrast, our pricing starts at $39. For this price, you’ll get the most accurate information available and, as a bonus, you don’t need to subscribe to any service or make any recurring payments. So, are we more expensive than data aggregators and subscription services? Yes, we are, but you’ll get a lot more value compared to the other option.
- Quick results. Now, you might be thinking how we can say that a benefit of using Docusearch for license plate lookups is quick results while we also say that instant results don’t exist. You see, even though we perform every search manually with the specific DMV, we’re still able to deliver the information quickly. In fact, in most cases, we’re able to give you the results of your search in less than an hour. So, you won’t have to wait too long for far more accurate results compared to data aggregators and subscription services.
Ultimately, when using a licensed investigator like Docusearch, you’ll not only know that the results you’ll get will it right, but also that it’s sourced in the right way.
Provide the investigator with either the license plate number and state or the VIN
We’ve now seen that you should use a licensed private investigator. Now, what information should you provide to the investigator to do the search? There are two things you’ll need.
For one, you’ll need either the license plate number or the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) number of the vehicle you want to do a search on and the state to search. An investigator who is licensed in your state like Docusearch will be able to perform a search and get the results you need using either of these numbers.
The second thing you need is a permissible reason for doing the search. As mentioned earlier, there are specific rules relating to the disclosure of the personal information of a vehicle owner. In terms of these rules, this information can only be obtained for very specific reasons. If your purpose doesn’t fall within these reasons, you won’t be able to do the search and get the information.
2. Is It Illegal to Find a Vehicle Owner By License Plate?
The simple answer is that it’s perfectly legal to obtain the information of the driver or owner of a vehicle. The proviso is, of course, that the purpose for obtaining the information must be permissible.
Safety, Accidents, and Litigation
The most common reasons why people want to do license plate lookups are:
- Accidents and litigation. It might happen that you’re a party to litigation and need the information of a driver that was involved in an accident like, for instance, a hit-and-run. As such, the information attached to a specific license plate number would be necessary to track down the owner or driver of the vehicle. When you do, you could then take legal action against them or establish whether they have assets to satisfy a claim.
- Used car details. When buying a used car, the owner’s details can be helpful. Simply put, by knowing the owner’s details, you can get some insights into a vehicle’s history. In other words, before buying the car, you could learn who owned it, for how long they owned it, whether it was involved in any accidents, or any other relevant information.
- Personal reasons. In some cases, you might want to look up a license plate to find the owner’s information for personal reasons. Here, there is a multitude of reasons why you would want this information from trying to find out who took your parking space to finding the name of someone who skipped a red light.
It’s important to remember that, generally speaking, the purpose of your search will have an impact on whether the search will be legal. For instance, searching for an owner’s details to track them down after an accident might be perfectly legal. Conversely, trying to find the information of the driver that cut you off in traffic will not be.
Basically, it comes down to this. If the purpose of a license plate search is for unlawful reasons, then, of course, the search would be illegal. Fortunately, most people who do need owner information from a license plate, do so for legal reasons. So, they do it to verify personal information for litigation purposes, driver safety, or ‘hit-and-run’ incidents.
Federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act
Now you may be wondering, how do you know if your specific purpose for a license plate lookup will be legal? Fortunately, legislation makes this possible. The relevant law that governs vehicle records is Federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act. This law limits the release of personal information related to state DMV records without the express consent of the person involved.
There are, however, certain exceptions when this information can be disclosed. For example, personal and vehicle information may be disclosed:
- For use by any government agency, including any law enforcement agency or court, in carrying out its functions.
- For use in connection with any civil, criminal, administrative, or arbitral proceedings in a federal, state, or local court or agency or body.
- For use in providing notice to owners of towed or impounded vehicles.
- For use by any insurer in connection with claims investigation activities, antifraud activities, rating, or underwriting.
- For use by any licensed private investigative agency or licensed security service for any purpose allowed in the terms of the subsection.
Keep in mind, however, these are just some examples of cases where the disclosure of the information will be permitted and there are many more. A licensed private investigator will be able to advise you whether the purpose of your search will be legal.
3. Can I Find a Vehicle Owner By License Plate Number For Free?
We mentioned earlier that data aggregators and subscription services provide you with outdated and inaccurate information. In fact, the old adage “You get what you pay for” has never fit so perfectly for these types of search services.
The truth behind free license plate searches
We’ve already looked at the quality of the results that you’ll get, and we don’t want to beat a dead horse, but we should reiterate that there are no FREE license plate searches. So, let’s now look at the business model these data aggregators and subscription services use.
Sites that advertise free license plate searches make it seem like you’ll get the information for free but actually hide the results behind a paywall. But beware, there’s a reason for this.
It’s because they want you to believe that they have the results you’re looking for and to see them, you’ll need to sign up for their database subscription service. With this business model, they catch many a customer unaware.
To see how this works in practice, let’s look at a simple example. Let’s assume you’re looking for the owner’s information relating to a specific license plate number. So, you’ll go to a subscription service’s website and enter the license plate number in the handy search box.
After some fancy graphics and animations, the site informs you that it found the information you’re looking for. In some cases, the site will also give you a preview of the information it found.
But here’s the catch. The site will then ask you to subscribe and pay to get the information and will usually lure you in with a very low price. Keep in mind, though, this price is usually only for the initial trial period and after that, you’ll be billed up to $25 per month even if you don’t use the service.
In other words, even if you don’t do another search again, you’ll need to pay. Even worse is that these sites make you jump through hoops to cancel the subscription. Ultimately, this means that, even if you pay only for a few months, you’ll end up paying far more than you would’ve by using a licensed investigator.
And yet, no matter how good the site’s marketing and promises, you’ll still get outdated and inaccurate historical information. Also, most if not all data aggregators and subscription services provide no guarantee relating to the accuracy of the information. In fact, it’s quite the contrary.
That, in a nutshell, is their business model – to sell you access to outdated information and continually charge you for it while making it extremely difficult to cancel the subscription.
Avoid scams with a licensed investigator
Considering the above, if you want the best results when doing a license plate lookup, you should avoid these scams as far as possible. If you do, you’ll end up saving yourself a lot of effort in not having to cancel a subscription, not even mentioning that you could end up paying more.
But we know, these sites and scams are so good at promoting their services, that they might seem legit. So, here are some tips you can use to avoid scams:
- Check for contact details. One of the first warnings signs that you’ll encounter is a total lack of contact details on the site. Simply put, if there are no contact details, you won’t be able to contact the site and speak to an agent. In turn, this means it’s likely a scam site or an affiliate front for a subscription service. These affiliate sites allow you to enter the license plate details you’re looking for but then refer you to a subscription service where you’ll need to subscribe and pay.
- Check what they offer. Although a lack of contact details can be a good indication to steer clear, it’s not foolproof. So, if the site has contact details listed, you should look a little further. The next thing you should look at is what the site offers. For instance, if the site’s offering information that it can’t legally offer, it’s more than likely a data aggregator or subscription service. For these services, it would be, as mentioned, legal to offer historical information. And that’s what you’ll get if you subscribe and pay.
- Do they offer instant results? Remember, there’s no such thing as instant search results. To get accurate and up-to-date information from the DMV, a manual search needs to be done and this takes some time. Conversely, historical information stored in a database can be retrieved quickly. And this is how these providers can promise instant results. As a result, when the site offers instant results, it’s best to steer clear as you’ll be lured into signing up for an expensive subscription.
- Dig into the fine print. A very effective strategy to identify if a site is a subscription service or scam is by looking at the fine print or, in other words, its terms of service. Although these terms might differ slightly from site to site, they all come down to basically the same thing. They clearly spell out that the information is sourced from third parties, that it might not be accurate, and that the site provides no guarantees relating to the data.
- Check their pricing. Another thing you’ll see when you look at the terms of service is the pricing structure the site uses. Here, you’ll typically see that the site charges a specific amount every month to subscribe to its service. In some cases, sites may also offer other payment terms like 3-monthly and 6-monthly packages. When it comes to pricing, it’s also worth your while to look at if the site has any free offers or trials. This is the strategy they use to lure you into signing up for their subscription service.
While the tips mentioned above can help you steer clear of scams, the simplest way to avoid them is by using a licensed private investigator. We’ve already seen that these investigators have direct access to the DMV and, as such, can provide the most accurate and up-to-date information.
But there’s another reason for this. Licensed private investigators are regulated and fall under the oversight of government agencies. This means they must meet strict requirements and answer to these agencies. In most cases, these investigators are also bonded and/or insured. So, apart from the quality of the information they provide, you’ll also have peace of mind that you won’t be scammed.
4. What Type of Information Can I Retrieve From a License Plate Lookup?
Moving on to the next question, let’s look at what type of information you can get when doing a license plate lookup. You can typically get both the owner’s and the vehicle’s information from a valid license plate or VIN number.
In most instances, this means that licensed investigators like Docusearch can get the following information from a license plate search:
- Vehicle information. You’ll be able to get a full description of the vehicle the license plate or VIN number is associated with. This includes the license plate or VIN, depending on what number you used to search, and the year, make, model, and more.
- Owner’s information. You’ll be able to find the current owner’s name and address.
- Lienholder’s name and address. In the event the vehicle is financed, you’ll also be able to get the information of the lienholder or legal owner. This includes information like their name and address if it’s available.
It’s important to remember that a couple of states have specific laws that restrict access to address and other restrictions. This means the information you’ll be able to get might differ from the information mentioned above.
Fortunately, when using Docusearch, these restrictions are clearly displayed on the state’s search description. No matter what your state, unlike other services, because our data is derived from the State DMV (and not a historic database), you can be sure that the results you’ll get, will be accurate and current.
5. I Only Need to Look up One License Plate Number. What Is My Future Financial Commitment?
By this time, it’s easy to see that data aggregators and subscription services don’t care about the license plate search results they provide. Their only aim is to lure you into signing up for a monthly subscription to their outdated database and keep on charging you. And to stop paying, you’ll need to jump through hoops to cancel the subscription. That’s how these unscrupulous websites operate.
At Docusearch, we only charge a one-time fee for every search you do. This means you’ll only pay for the searches you need and nothing more. You’ll have no subscription to buy, nothing to cancel, and no future obligations.
6. Do Other Lookup Websites Provide Customer Reviews?
We’ve already dealt with the tips you can use to identify a scam site or subscription service. Another valuable tip is to look for user reviews on the site. More than likely, you won’t find any. And if you do, they’re probably fictional quotes or reviews from customers that don’t exist.
There’s a good reason why these sites and platforms don’t provide user reviews. It’s simply because, in reality, most of their customers end up being so unhappy and dissatisfied with the information they got that they won’t leave a review, or the site wouldn’t want to display them for all to see.
Conversely, reputable and trusted firms give their customers the opportunity to post reviews about the service and information provided. And these are not fictitious reviews and quotes with some sales copy added into the mix, these are actual reviews of the service.
For example, at Docusearch, we give every new customer the chance to post a review for all to see. Of course, this is completely optional, but we still have hundreds of reviews available. Simply click on the state you wish to search to view them:
- District of Columbia
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- South Carolina