Lynn Talbot of Blacksburg had an odd experience recently trying to renew her car registration with the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. She decided to share the tale in the hope it could save others some money and potential hassle if they attempt the same thing.
The DMV seconds that notion. Apparently there are some “unscrupulous” operators out there trying to separate Old Dominion car owners from their cash.
Talbot, a college professor, has been registering cars in Virginia since 1982. Usually, she does it by mail. This year, she received a DMV postcard reminding her that her car’s registration would expire Oct. 31.
It suggested she renew online at dmvNow.com. That’s the correct website for the state agency.
Renewing online, the postcard advised, would save Talbot the $5 walk-in fee the DMV charges for transactions that could be performed by computer.
But somehow, Talbot apparently wound up on a different website. And she didn’t realize it wasn’t the state agency’s.
As she worked through the online form, inputting information, including the last four digits of her title and vehicle identification numbers as well as her email address, Talbot came upon a notice that she would be charged a $15 fee for the online renewal.
Next to the notice was a question mark in a circle. Talbot clicked that and up popped another note, telling her she could save the $15 fee by renewing at dmv.virginia.gov. So that’s what she decided to do.
Later Talbot wrote me an email with the subject line: “Is this a scam?”
“If I hadn’t been paying attention, I might well have unnecessarily paid $15,” Talbot wrote.
Later we talked on the phone and I got some more information.
“To me, the irony is, they send you this card, saying, ‘Go online and avoid the $5 in-person fee’ — by paying the $15 agency fee,” Talbot said.
“Why do they have these two different systems, one that charges the agency fee and one that doesn’t?”
And why, Talbot wanted to know, was she sent a postcard directing her to renew online, while her husband received a mail-in renewal packet from the agency?
Those are legitimate questions and I put them to Brandy Brubaker, a DMV spokeswoman.
First of all, Brubaker said, the DMV charges no additional fee for online registration renewal. The DMV gives car owners a $1 discount per renewal year for renewing online. (You may renew for up to three years.) Customers who do it online also save the $5 walk-in fee, Brubaker said.
“It sounds like the customer you asked about may have been a victim of an unscrupulous online business,” Brubaker said.
“Websites not affiliated with Virginia DMV claim to offer DMV products and services, yet usually have disclaimers on their home pages indicating they are not affiliated with official government sites. Some of these private companies charge fees to do DMV business on the customer’s behalf,” Brubaker told me.
Some of those websites have URLs that make them appear official. One is DMV.com. Another is DMV.org. I checked each and both have disclaimers. It appears in small letters at the top of the page on DMV.com; on DMV.org, the disclaimer appears in much larger type.
DMV.org charges a $15 “convenience fee” for online renewals and claims that it confers additional customer benefits, such as “one click renewal,” “free sticker replacement” and “100% Satisfaction Guarantee” that the real Virginia DMV does not offer.
Some operators act as a portal for actual transactions and renew registrations by retransmitting a customer’s information to the real DMV, Brubaker said.
Brubaker said such businesses are legal, “but there might be unnecessary expense.”
Some other unofficial sites take a customer’s money and do nothing, she said. The customer learns later their registration is expired after they thought they’d renewed on a unofficial site.
“It’s really important to make sure they’re on an official DMV website,” Brubaker said.
She added that sometimes customers’ computers have picked up malware that automatically bounces them from dmvNow.com to an unofficial site.
So beware of which website you’re on if you attempt to do online transactions with the Virginia DMV.
As to the postcard: Why did Talbot get one while her husband received a mail-in registration packet for his car?
“DMV is piloting a program to test the efficiency and effectiveness of mailing postcard-style vehicle registration renewal notices rather than the full-size registration renewal packets,” Brubaker said.
“However, the postcards were only sent to customers who have previously renewed their registration online. If you don’t use online services, you wouldn’t receive one.”