The Idaho Transportation Department makes more than $5.4 million a year selling motor vehicle records and other personal information to companies that use it to research car buying patterns, send out recall notices and even track down scofflaws who don’t pay parking tickets given out by private companies.
Department spokesman Jeff Stratten says none of the information is used to send junk mail, and the department takes steps to make sure the information is being used correctly. Idaho law says the information can be used for purposes including vehicle emissions monitoring, car recalls, and for the enforcement of civil and criminal court actions.
But Idaho residents who get drivers’ license or register their vehicles are never notified that the information is being sold, and at least one of the steps the department relies on to ensure proper use of the records appears to have spotty results.
“There’s three levels of scrutiny that we rely on,” Stratten said. “One is the companies that purchase the motor vehicle bulk records — they have a strong incentive to comply with state and federal laws, because if they don’t they’re basically out of business.”
The second level is information-sharing with other states, he said. Idaho is a member of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, and through that organization ITD officials can hear about companies that are misusing the records.
But Claire O’Brien, marketing coordinator with the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, said her organization doesn’t track companies suspected of misusing motor vehicle or license records. In fact, she said, she doesn’t know of any nationwide organization that does that kind of work. So while motor vehicle officials may hear of problems with companies in other states through the grapevine because of their affiliation with the organization, it’s not something the AAMVA considers part of its role.
The grapevine approach fails at least some of the time: One company that buys motor vehicle records from Idaho was sued in federal court by the state of Kansas for allegedly misusing records purchased from that state in 2008. That lawsuit ended when Keith Hayes, the owner of The Recall Center based in Salem, Utah, agreed to pay $1 million and to stop misusing the motor vehicle records.
Hayes didn’t immediately return a message left with the phone number listed on his contract with the Idaho Transportation Department.
Stratten said the department didn’t have any records showing it was aware of the problems The Recall Center had in Kansas, and said the company has never been investigated by the Idaho Transportation Department.
The third level of scrutiny, Stratten said, involves investigative methods that the department doesn’t disclose.
“Last year we did have an investigation of one of the companies led by the attorney general’s office here. The company was cleared. There was no issue found,” he said.
Those types of investigations can be prompted by consumer complaints. Stratten said anyone who gets a suspicious mailing from a company that they think was misusing motor vehicle records can bring it in for the department to take a look.
Complaints are very rare, he said.
That’s not particularly surprising, however, since the department doesn’t formally notify customers that their information is being sold. It doesn’t have to, because the only companies it sells the information to are entitled to the records under special exemptions in Idaho law.
“The use of the bulk records are really in the best interest of the citizens,” Stratten said. “Of course, giving them to law enforcement is a safety issue, and the majority of them are used for motor vehicle recalls or advisories. It’s in the best interest of Idahoans to know if their car has been recalled or if there’s an advisory. It’s also in the best interest of folks to have insurers be able to check that you’re telling the truth because that keeps the costs down for all of us.”
The complaints that are brought to the Idaho Transportation Department typically don’t include enough information for the department to actually investigate, he said.
“If you do have a complaint or concern, I encourage you to first and foremost take as much information down as you can,” Stratten said. “In the end, there’s just not enough information provided for the department to pursue many of the complaints that we do receive, because they tossed the letter or they misplaced it.”