Passing by that lonely-looking vintage Jaguar in your parking lot day after day, you can’t help but wonder: Who owns this car? Why don’t they drive it? And is it for sale?
Unfortunately for the auto enthusiasts among us, figuring out how to find out who owns a car isn’t as easy as looking up an address or a phone number. But even though strict privacy laws limit who can view car ownership data, you may still be able to gain access to that information under certain circumstances.
Can you look up who owns this car?
Sometimes—depending on the reason. This depends on where you live and how much access you have to documentation. DMV information-sharing requirements differ between states.
“You can generally ask for this information if you are looking to buy a used car,” said Janet Patterson, the vice president of marketing communications at Highway Title Loans. “This is a situation where you deserve to know all the vehicle details and history.”
Another reason to look up this information is when you think a car has been involved in some suspicious activity and you want to try and confirm it, Patterson added. “Or if you believe you are wrongly being accused of something in relevance to your car and feel the need to disprove it.”
In general, federal law protects the privacy of vehicle owners and restricts access to ownership information, even if you have the license plate or vehicle identification number. The Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, passed by Congress in 1993, restricts states from disclosing private information about a car owner to the public.
“The state will only allow the motor vehicle departments to disclose information from a license plate lookup for a statutorily enumerated reason found in the DPPA,” said David Reischer, a traffic attorney for LegalAdvice.com. “Some reasons include searches by a government entity, searches by an insurance company and litigants with a valid subpoena.”
Can I try to find out who owns this car by VIN?
Possibly, but again, this depends on why you need the information.
A VIN is a 17-digit number given to each car to help people try to find the history file of the vehicle. Anyone can search for VIN reports with the help of companies for a fee. Information from free sites is typically limited.
“It’s perfectly safe for you to ask for the VIN of a vehicle you are looking to buy,” said Arnold Chapman, the founder and CEO of ELD Focus. “The VIN is essentially in plain sight, and most of the time, it can be found on the vehicle’s dashboard. Giving it to your prospective buyer is okay, especially if you want to gain their trust and verify your ownership.
The only time it’s illegal to ask for the VIN is if you plan to clone it, Chapman said. “VIN cloning is when someone copies the number and will use it on a stolen vehicle of the same make and model. However, this process is extremely illegitimate and difficult.”
How to find out who owns a vehicle
Assuming you have a valid reason and the proper documentation, you can try to find out who owns a car quite easily. But keep in mind this information is only available through specific authorities. Typically, those authorities include the DMV, law enforcement and, in some cases, private investigators. If you have a legitimate reason for wanting to know who owns a car, here’s where to start.
Go to the DMV
The DMV is the place to go if you’re planning to buy a used car and need information, such as an odometer or accident report. But beware if you’re looking for a complete ownership history. In some states, such as New York, a DMV vehicle report won’t include out-of-state owner records.
When permissible under the DPPA, other information provided by the DMV includes:
- Make, model, weight and year
- Type of registration and registration expiration date
- Fuel and engine (cylinder) types
Contact law enforcement
Contact law enforcement immediately if your vehicle has been involved in a hit-and-run crash or another crime, or if there is a strange car parked on your property.
The police have access to ownership information based on license plate or VIN, but keep in mind that if the car you’re looking for was involved in a crime, the owner of the car may not be the person responsible.
Hire a private investigator
If the DMV and law enforcement avenues turned into a dead end, consider hiring a licensed private investigator.
“A private investigator with the proper credentials can get direct access to DMV records in all 50 states,” said Patterson. “An experienced investigator can get the job done faster for you, as they’ll be able to obtain the information you need since they’ll be able to understand better the nature of your case and what you are looking to prove or disprove.”
If you’re more of a DIYer or would prefer not to spend the money to hire an investigator, there are platforms that may be able to provide you with similar information for a fee.
You can search for the data yourself, such as using a license plate search, to try and access the information yourself.
Keep in mind, however, that joining a platform does not mean you can circumvent privacy laws—meaning, your reason for finding out must be lawful.
Why is car owner information private?
Decades ago, antiabortion activists used car owner data to find and harass abortion patients and providers. In 1994, Congress passed DPPA to protect them, ensuring that only legally authorized people could access vehicle ownership records.
DPPA also penalizes those who gain unauthorized access to ownership data.
“The access of the license plate records by an unauthorized party can be assessed penalties and also be sued for damages by the person whose license plate was illegally accessed and privacy violated,” said Reischer.
Ultimately, the burden of proving damages caused by unauthorized records access is on the vehicle owner. Nevertheless, make sure you have the vehicle owner’s permission before you attempt to access the record.