How Vehicle Registration Locates People

Using Vehicle Registration to Find People

The Foundation for American Communications (FACS)

(Excerpted from “Find Them Fast!” (c) Copyright 1994 by Dave

Reporters spend a good deal of their time trying to find people. One
of the best ways to locate people throughout the United States is through
the use of driver’s license and vehicle registration information.

Thousands of “missing” people are located each year through the
departments of motor vehicles located in each of the fifty states. If the
person you’re looking for is of legal driving age, this should be one of
the first places you look for them. A driver’s license has become one of
the most important pieces of identification carried by Americans over the
age of sixteen. It is generally the first piece of I.D. asked for by
police officers, retailers, bankers and just about everyone else
requiring proof of identification.

In recent years, a few states have enacted laws restricting public
access to driving and vehicle registration records, but in most states,
the information is available for the asking (and a nominal fee). One nice
thing about driving records: You can get a wealth of information out by
putting very little information in. Two pieces of information that are
vital to begin the search, however, are the subject’s name (make sure it
is spelled correctly!) and, if possible, a date of birth.

Given a person’s name and birth date, the motor vehicle department
should be able to give you a current address; last known address;
personal information, such as height, weight, eye and hair color;
previous names, if any; the numbers and types of vehicles owned by that
person as well as any traffic tickets they may have accumulated in recent
years. These records also can be used to “skip-trace” missing persons who
may have moved in recent years. Each motor vehicle department maintains
records going back from two to 30 years, indicating what state the
person’s license was surrendered to.

States also keep records of licenses issued to women under their
maiden names, so it is possible to find women whose last names may have
changed through marriage. Appendix A lists the address for the agency in
every state that handles driver’s license records. I’ve also included a
sample letter you can use to request the records for your subject. When
writing to obtain driver’s license records always ask for all available
public information on your subject. You may receive some data you deem
unimportant, such as eye color and other physical characteristics, but
you also will get much valuable information.

If your subject has a common name, it will save you a lot of time if
you can provide the DMV with his or her date of birth. That will help the
clerks in the computer room figure out which John Smith you’re trying to

Vehicle registration
Sometimes, after obtaining a subject’s driving records, I discover the
address on their license is not current. When that happens, I immediately
contact the DMV and request a list of all motor vehicles listed to my
subject’s name.

Vehicle registration records are a great way to zero in on someone.
They almost always yield current addresses. That’s because driver’s
licenses are renewed every few years (some states allow eight years
between renewals). But motor vehicle registration must be renewed
annually. Consequently, the address you obtain from registration records
is at most only a year old.

To obtain registration records, use the sample DMV request letter in
this booklet and modify it to request the appropriate records. You can
search vehicle registration records several different ways: By owner’s
name; by license number and by vehicle identification number.

Searching by name is simple. You simply ask the DMV in the appropriate
state for a list of all the vehicles registered to your subject’s name.
If you know the license number of a vehicle owned by your subject, you
can ask the DMV to trace that number and give you the address of the
person who owns the plate.

Finally, if you know the vehicle identification number (VIN) of a car
or truck owned by your subject, you can ask the DMV to trace ownership of
that vehicle. (VIN numbers are often included in divorce records and
bankruptcy filings where assets are listed). Since the ownership of motor
vehicles is tracked so carefully by the government, vehicle registration
records can also lead you to a subject who has moved some time ago. If
you know a specific vehicle your subject owned, even if it was some years
ago, you may be able to use that information to find him today.

Here’s how: Request a “vehicle history” or a “body file” on the
vehicle from the DMV. That packet of information will include the names
and addresses of everyone who ever owned the car or truck. Working back
from the current owner, you should be able to contact all the previous
owners of the vehicle. The person who dealt with your subject may recall
information about them that can help lead you to them. Appendix B
contains the addresses of the agency in all 50 states that handles motor
vehicle registration.

Case study
A colleague once traced a valuable source down using precisely this
method. The man he was looking for was divorced. My colleague called the
man’s ex-wife, who had no idea where he was. She did, however, have
information about the sports car he got in the divorce, a car they
jointly bought when they were married. My friend obtained the vehicle
history and learned that his subject had sold the car to a young college
kid. The kid recalled that the man he bought the car from said he had to
sell it because he was moving to Wyoming and he needed a truck. Tracking
the man down in Wyoming was easy.

Traffic tickets
If your subject is the kind of person who doesn’t give accurate or
proper information on licenses or other official documents, check to see
if he or she has any traffic tickets. You can do that when you ask for
driving records. If there are tickets on your subject’s record, write to
the city or jurisdiction where the ticket was issued. Ask for a copy of
the citation. It will include the make, model and license number of the
vehicle involved in the incident.

Go back to the DMV and find out who owns that vehicle. Most likely, it
will be someone who knows your subject and can supply information about
his current address.

Accident reports
If you discover your subject was involved in an accident, you may be
sitting on a gold mine of information, especially if lawsuits were filed
as a result of the crack-up. You can find out from the DMV where the
accident occurred. Contact that city or jurisdiction and obtain a copy of
the police report that was filed for the accident.

Note all the parties involved in the accident. The report will include
addresses and other information for all of them, of course. You can find
out a lot more about everyone involved (including your subject) if any
lawsuits were filed as a result of the mishap. Take the names of everyone
involved in the accident to the local courthouse. Ask the clerk there to
check to see if any of those people are involved in any lawsuits. If so,
review all the paperwork involved. It will give you loads of information
about each party, particularly if the damage was deemed to be

If the other party filed suit, you can bet that the addresses for your
subject in the court documents will be accurate, since the injured party
has filed the suit with the intent of collecting damages.

RV’s, ATV’s and snowmobiles
Like their on-road cousins, most types of off-road vehicles are also
licensed by the state. Recreational vehicles, all-terrain vehicles and
even snowmobiles can all be used to lead you to their owners. In most
states, the Department of Motor Vehicles licenses these types of
vehicles. Check with your state DMV office to see how you can obtain
registration records.

You can track ownership records for boats much the same way you track
motor vehicle records. You can search for people using their names, or
you can search for ownership and registration of vessels, using the I.D.
number of the boat. You can even order a vessel history and trace
ownership of the boat the same way you can for motor vehicles. Appendix D
lists the addresses of agencies to write to for boat and vessel
registration records.

Airplane records are kept by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
located in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. If your subject is a pilot or owns an
aircraft (either fixed wing or helicopter) the FAA will have records on
him or her. As with cars and boats, you can trace the ownership of
aircraft as well as receive license information about pilots.

The FAA records on pilots includes the pilot’s address, type of
aircraft the pilot is licensed to fly and the date of the pilot’s last
medical examination. Airplanes don’t have license plates. They are
identified by their so-called “N-number,” which is written in large
letters on the body and tail of the plane. You can trace planes using
that number. As with motor vehicles, you can trace the history of a
plane, a technique that can give you past owners and addresses.

You can search FAA records by mail. Write Federal Aviation
Administration Mike Monroney Aero Center, 6500 South MacArthur Drive,
P.O. Box 25082 Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 73125. To check pilot records by
phone, call (405) 954-3261. To check on aircraft, call (405)


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