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REAL ID Scams: Beware of Texts and Emails About New Driver's License

Officials across the U.S. warn of scammers phishing for your personal data

Sample REAL ID

Illinois Department of Driver Services

En español | State officials from New York to California are warning consumers that criminals are seeking their personal data under the guise of helping them obtain a REAL ID, a government-issued driver's license or identification card that eventually will be required to board domestic flights or enter certain federal facilities.

Due to the pandemic, the deadline for a REAL ID compliant license has been pushed to May 3, 2023. The cutoff had been Oct. 1, 2021.

The postponement helps consumers, to be sure, but gives criminals a longer time frame to use a ruse to grab your data.

In Wyoming, the state Department of Transportation issued an alert on Facebook in May about these so-called phishing scams. Phishing is a technique identity thieves use to obtain sensitive data later used to open new financial accounts, invade consumers’ existing accounts, or infect a computer device with malicious software. “A multistate phishing scam is targeting driver license holders regarding their licenses being REAL ID compliant,” the alert said. Their texts often direct consumers to a sham third-party website that asks for personal information.

Real ID scam graphic

Better Business Bureau

This scam text went to Steve J. Bernas, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau. Three notes: (1) The 315 area code is for Upstate New York, not Illinois. (2) Illinois does not have a Department of Motor Vehicles; it has a Department of Driver Services and a Department of Vehicle Services. (3) The so-called “driver license waiver” does not exist, an official said. Don’t click on links in texts like the one shown. Do report such scam texts to state authorities and the Federal Trade Commission.

In Illinois, other versions of the scam have emerged. The latest one — which slammed consumers in late May — was purportedly from the state Department of Motor Vehicles and directed people to visit a sham website to validate details for a “driver license waiver,” which a state official said does not even exist. Steve J. Bernas, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois, got that bogus text at 5:59 p.m. Friday as the Memorial Day weekend kicked off.

'The tip-off to the rip-off'

"Nobody's gonna text, email or call you out of the blue and ask you for personal and confidential information such your Social Security number, or driver's license number,” Bernas says. “And that should be the tip-off to the rip-off.”

Another telltale sign: Illinois has a Department of Driver Services and a Department of Vehicle Services, but not a Department of Motor Vehicles. Be wary of such errors as well as poor spelling or grammar, threats, and a web page address that does not match a legitimate site. “If the message does not feel right, chances are it is not,” New York state officials caution.

Another scam in Land of Lincoln

Another version of the scam in Illinois led to a warning early this year saying the name of its Department of Employment Security was being used in texts urging recipients to “click on a link to update their driver's license or state ID to comport with upcoming federal REAL ID requirements."

"If you receive one of these text messages, don't respond — delete it,” says Beth Kaufman, Chicago press secretary for Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, whose office oversees driver's licenses and motor vehicle registrations.

Kaufman says consumers may be asked questions about personal data only when they visit Driver Services facilities but “you're never going to be asked for that information through a text or email.” More tips: If you have a question about a suspicious communication supposedly from the state, visit a legitimate website, such as the one for the Illinois secretary of state, and report these scams to the Illinois Attorney General's Consumer Fraud Hotline.

Beth Kaufman

Courtesy Beth Kaufman

Beth Kaufman, Chicago press secretary for Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White

Coast-to-coast chicanery

Similar scams have cropped up on the coasts:

• In New York, people have received texts claiming to be sent by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Last October officials warned of bad actors bombarding people with such sham texts and reminded consumers that a legitimate entity would never ask for sensitive information in a text.

• In California, the Department of Motor Vehicles issued a warning March 1 saying multiple customers had gotten a sham text stating: “Our records indicate that your contact information must be updated for REAL ID compliance. Provide an up-to-date mailing address and phone number."

• California's Steven Gordon, director of its DMV, cautions: “The DMV has not sent such a text, nor would we.” When his office texts or emails customers, it is based on action initiated by a customer; for example, the state DMV sends appointment reminders by text or email.

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Four ways to take a bite out of these crimes

1. Report these scams to state authorities and to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a consumer protection agency.

2. Read the FTC's suggestions on avoiding phishing scams, which also can start in a computer pop-up ad.

3. Don't give cybercriminals a leg up by posting sensitive information online.

4. Remember that if these scammers are targeting consumers in California, Illinois, New York and Wyoming, they're probably hitting people in other states, too.

Katherine Skiba covers scams and fraud for AARP. Previously she was a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, U.S. News & World Report, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She was a recipient of Harvard University's Nieman Fellowship and is the author of the book, Sister in the Band of Brothers: Embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq.

Planning a flight? Be aware scammers hijack the REAL ID brand for gain

Adults who want to use a government-issued driver’s license or identification card to board domestic flights must obtain a REAL ID compliant license or card by May 3, 2023. The Transportation Security Administration also accepts passports. Here’s more about the requirement. Regrettably, scammers follow the news about programs such as these to sow confusion and turn a quick buck.

Be wary of unsolicited contacts about REAL ID. It’s up to you to get the ball rolling and apply for one through the agency in your state that issues driver’s licenses and identification cards. A REAL ID generally is marked with a star at the top.

The new identification also will be required by the May 2023 deadline to access some federal facilities.

AARP’s Fraud Watch Network can help you spot and avoid scams. Sign up for free Watchdog Alerts, review our scam-tracking map, or call our toll-free fraud helpline at 877-908-3360 if you or a loved one suspect you’ve been a victim.