Sooner or later, you may find yourself curious to look up a license plate number you’ve encountered in public—whether it’s to track down the owner or to uncover more information about the vehicle. But before you move forward with this strategy, you should know there are some serious limitations to an online license plate owner lookup, and you may not be able—or legally allowed—to get the information you want.

Why Would You Look Up a License Plate?

Let’s take a look at a few examples of why someone might look up a license plate. Generally, this is done to find the owner of a vehicle (including their address), or to discover more about the history of the vehicle. These are common scenarios:

  • Hit and run accidents (and suspected fraud). If you suspect the owner or driver of a vehicle has been involved in a crime, you may want to track them down. For example, if you were the victim of a hit and run accident, and you wrote down the license plate number of the car that hit you, you may want to track down the owner and take legal action.
  • Used car research. You may also be tempted to look up a license plate to learn more about a vehicle’s history. For example, if you’re considering purchasing a used vehicle, you may want to know about who owned it last, how long they owned it, or other information.
  • Personal motivations. In some cases, people want to look up license plates for more personal, sometimes nefarious reasons. For example, you might have flirted with someone at a red light and be interested in tracking them down, or you might be annoyed with someone who keeps taking your parking space.

However, as you’ll soon learn, not all these motivations are treated equally.

Privacy Laws and Personal Lookups

According to the DMV, it is illegal for an ordinary citizen to run a license plate check on another individual. If you walk into a DMV and request information on a person based on their license plate number, you won’t get any information. Only a law enforcement officer or other qualified individual may legally run license plate checks.

That said, states have different regulations and different availabilities for their license plate information. Some states are more lenient with their records, enabling private investigators to find key pieces of information about the vehicle and its driver. Others are more tight-lipped, only releasing old records that aren’t much use to anyone in the current year.

Typical Online License Plate Lookups

The typical online provider of license plate searches are gimmicks meant to take advantage of people who are eager to learn the identity of a vehicle owner for personal reasons. Many times, these sites scrape together information from old records, providing you with a description of the vehicle and, if you’re lucky, the name of a previous owner. Free license plate lookup services are especially notorious; you get what you pay for, and many times, free lookups are a way for companies to get your personal information.

Private Investigators and Special Teams

You may be able to get more accurate, complete information by working with private investigators and other special teams. Individuals in these categories use a combination of resources and databases to put together a comprehensive report, making them a much more reliable way to run a license plate lookup. By paying for this level of service, you’ll get a much more professional experience.

What Information Can You Find?

So what information can you get from a private investigator or similar service?

  • Vehicle description. In most cases, you’ll be able to get a description of the vehicle the license is attached to, including whether the license matches what’s on record.
  • Current owner name. Depending on your state, you may also be able to find the name of the current owner. The accuracy of this information will depend on your source.
  • Current owner address. If you can find the name of the current owner, you can likely also find the address of the current owner.
  • Other information. When law enforcement officers run plates, they may also be able to tell things like whether the vehicle has been reported stolen, and whether the car it’s attached to has valid, up-to-date insurance.

There are many factors to consider here, including which states provide accurate, up-to-date information on their registered license holders, and the type of company you’re dealing with. In any case, if you’re going to look up a license plate number, make sure it’s for a good reason; looking up a vehicle owner for personal reasons is illegal, and will likely be turned down by a private investigator.