How to Find Out Who Owns a Vehicle Using Reverse Lookup Tools

Vehicle ownership is traced through state documents including registration and licensure so that government officials can collect taxes, notify owners of recalls, and determine responsibility for accidents.

VIN Lookups

Each vehicle is stamped with a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) during manufacturing so that owners can determine where and when manufacturing took place. VIN numbers also track state registrations and vehicle damage so that there is a record of theft or significant damage. Finding a car’s VIN number before purchasing it can save a lot of money and aggravation because a VIN trace will show:

  • locations where the vehicle was previously registered;
  • find out about recalls affecting the vehicle’s safety;
  • confirm whether the title had been deemed “salvage” due to significant damage;
  • confirm the odometer reading against historic records;
  • research significant changes to the vehicle by matching the VIN information to the current vehicle equipment, including engine size, mileage, and transmission, and
  • make conclusions about the condition of the vehicle due to the number of previous owners, number of miles on it, and number of recalls for the make, model, and year.

Using a VIN lookup tool can tell a lot about a vehicle but it takes more sleuthing to ascertain the current or former owner’s name, personal address, and other information than this string of numbers. If you learn of a VIN number that doesn’t match the car’s history, reporting it to the police can help to stop vehicle theft or VIN cloning crimes.

Some people who collect and restore vintage vehicles will trace the automobile’s history to find past owners for information. VIN numbers may help if the vehicle in question were made after the mid-1980s but cars weren’t required to have VIN numbers prior to 1986.

License Plate Lookup

License plates represent a link between a vehicle and its owner. If you record the state, the digits, and the expiration date of the registration on a license plate the information can be used to find out who owns the vehicle.

There are many circumstances when this information may be important:

  • If you were in a car accident;
  • If the vehicle damaged your property;
  • If something threatening was said or if the driver of the vehicle operated it in a threatening manner;
  • If the vehicle was illegally parked on your property;
  • If the vehicle shows up under suspicious circumstances, such as parked outside your house when something was stolen, or
  • If you hit a parked car and don’t know who it belongs to.

In 1994 the Drivers Protection and Privacy Act was established to make it more difficult for private citizens to track down the personal information of another through a license plate number. The law was enacted because several incidents proved it necessary: thieves traced the plate numbers of expensive cars back to homes that they burgled, an actress was stalked and killed by a man who found out where she lived through a private investigator who uncovered the information from a license plate number, and people who opposed abortion were using the information to harass and threaten those who went to certain doctor’s offices. This law severely restricts an individual’s ability to find the owner of a vehicle except through official channels.

Since 1994 the information about a license plate is only available to a limited number of people for official purposes, including:

  • government agencies;
  • emissions testing;
  • car recalls;
  • insurance companies;
  • tow truck companies;
  • licensed private investigators, and
  • business that verify a commercial driver’s eligibility.

When to Trace a License Plate Number

Recording the license plate number of a person you’ve had an altercation with, whom you witness leaving the scene of an accident or property damage, or whose presence may coincide with criminal activity can be a good idea. Turning this information over to police may stop a habitual drunk driver or road, rage perpetrator.

If you’ve involved in a hit and run, police and the affected insurance company will want the license plate number of the vehicle involved. That does not mean that you will get the person’s home address and contact information. Both police and insurance companies investigate to find out who was driving at the time of an accident or altercation, and the owner may not be the driver involved in the incident. Sometimes the information can be found on a police report or insurance records after the fact. Also, you can use a license plate lookup tool to find out this information.

Most states require the individual’s express consent to access driving records and other personal information, yet they sell bulk access to much of the information contained in the records for pennies to major corporations like insurance companies and financial institutions. Aside from police and state agencies, licensed private investigators who are registered with the state DMV can usually get access to this information, but each transaction is logged so that it can be traced back to the person who looked it up, so there is no anonymity in using official records. By limiting the number of detectives with access the states are supposed to police the use of the information so that it can’t be used to harm or harass anyone, yet advocates of strong laws to prevent domestic violence say any unofficial access is still hazardous to a segment of the population.