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Why Criminals Want Your Driver’s License

It's important to keep your personal data safe to avoid identity theft


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Soon after Amy Gray, a 47-year-old public school teacher in Akron, Ohio, had her purse stolen last January from her workplace — an employment skills program for students housed at a mall — she received a bank alert that someone was using her credit and debit cards. She quickly canceled the cards and ordered replacements. She also ordered a new driver’s license and received a duplicate of the one that had been stolen. It included the same ID number.

Though it didn’t worry her at the time, Gray recalls, “that turned out to be the worst problem.”

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She discovered this a few months later, when she received a letter from Ohio’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles informing her that her license had been suspended, due to an outstanding arrest warrant in her name. The police later told her that a shoplifter they had caught at a local store had shown them Gray’s license as identification. Even though the person didn’t really look like Gray in the picture, she says, “they gave my license back to that person and let them go on their merry way.”

Because the police didn’t believe her, Gray was forced to contest the charges in court. Luckily, her attorney was able to get them dismissed thanks to a store surveillance video showing that the thief was older and had a different build and hairstyle than Gray. It cost her $2,500 in legal fees to clear her name.

Why criminals love driver’s licenses

It’s a predicament that too many Americans have to face. For most of us, a driver’s license is the go-to form of identification, the proof that we’re asked to present when we cash checks or show up at an airport to board a flight.

“Just think about everything that you do, using your driver’s license to prove that you are you,” says Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit organization that works to combat crimes and assist victims. But, with your license, “a thief can do it as well.”

VIDEO: Signs It's Not the DMV Contacting You

And having your picture on the license can provide surprisingly scant protection, she adds, “if the person who wants to use it even remotely resembles you.”

Some scammers steal people’s actual licenses, while others convince their targets to upload scanned copies of their card to the internet as part of an application for a fake government loan or grant. In what’s become a disturbing trend, still others hack into the computer systems of government motor vehicle agencies and businesses that use licenses to identify customers, and steal the data.

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“There’s a market for drivers’ licenses,” explains Steve Baker, a former Federal Trade Commission official who now publishes the Baker Fraud Report, a newsletter. He notes that identity thieves buy driver’s licenses or their data on the dark web and combine their information with other types of stolen data to apply for credit cards or loans.

They can also use the data to create fake physical licenses that impressively mimic real ones, notes Velasquez. “The fakes are so good that the data is even scannable on the magnetic strip,” she says.

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How criminals steal driver’s licenses and their data

Thieves don’t just steal purses or wallets to get driver’s licenses. In Houston, when LaNishia Moore-Munoz’s new license didn’t arrive in the mail, she initially assumed that the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles was backed up. She didn’t realize that a scammer apparently had grabbed the license out of her home’s mailbox.

But Moore-Munoz, who, like Gray, is a teacher in her 40s, eventually found out that something was wrong when county officials sent her notices of toll violations involving a car with license plates that she didn’t recognize.

Moore-Munoz says that an imposter with her license bought a BMW and obtained insurance in her name. The person also rented a U-Haul truck and didn’t return it, resulting in a $753 bill. And when Moore-Munoz tried to sign up to be an Uber Eats driver to make some extra cash, she discovered that someone already was driving for the company under her name. The criminal even used her identity to rent an apartment and sign up for utilities, she says.

Scammers also can get driver’s license information by posing as employers and getting targets to fill out online job applications that ask for the number, as well as other personal data, according to Velasquez. Or they’ll pose as officials from banks or state motor vehicle agencies and request the information, she says.

In recent years, an even more efficient method for stealing drivers’ license info has emerged. Hackers break into company and government computer systems and steal vast numbers of licenses in one fell swoop.

“Hackers are looking for a way that they can get the most amount of data for the least amount of work,” explains Michael Bruemmer, head of the data breach resolution team for credit bureau Experian.

What you can do to protect yourself

Privacy and anti-fraud experts recommend these measures to guard against driver’s license scammers.

  • Show your license, but don’t take it out.  “I just never take my license out of my wallet,” Bruemmer says. He suggests using a wallet whose pouch has a clear window so he can quickly flash it at a wine bar or somewhere else where he has to verify his age and identity. If he has to take it out of his wallet, he adds, “I never let it out of my sight.”
  • Don’t let anyone take a picture of your driver’s license.  When doctors’ offices and others want a picture of your license, Experian’s Bruemmer says, they’re more interested in assuring payment than verifying your identity. He sees the risk as too high and suggests instead offering to provide a copy of your utility bill.
  • Don’t give out your driver’s license number to someone who calls out of the blue. “If you didn’t initiate the contact, don’t give out your data,” Velasquez advises.
  • If someone does manage to steal your driver’s license or information, report it. Bruemmer says it’s crucial to immediately report the theft to begin a paper trail showing that you’ve had the document stolen. Similarly, if your license is used in a crime, you’ll want to get the report on the incident. Bruemmer also suggests filing a report with the FTC; having ample evidence of identity theft may make it easier to convince state motor vehicle officials to issue a license with a new number.
  • If you’ve had your information stolen in a data breach, go to the state agency’s website and follow what instructions the agency provides. “They’ll give you a step-by-step list of things to do,” Bruemmer says.  

Useful resources

If your driver’s license has been stolen, contact your state’s motor vehicle agency; this federal government portal will take you to the state agency’s website.

Get online assistance from the Identity Theft Resource Center or call 888-400-5530 to talk to an advisor.

Report identity theft to the Federal Trace Commissions IdentityTheft.gov website, which also offers personalized plans and online coaching for recovering from identity theft.

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spinner image cartoon of a woman holding a megaphone

Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.