CBS4 Problem Solvers finds thousands of nearly identical vanity license plates

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- An analysis of the state's database of personalized license plates turned up thousands of cases of drivers sharing the same message, spelled with variations of letters and numbers that could be easily confused.

More than 120,000 Hoosiers pay the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles an extra $45 every year to register a personalized license plate (PLP), known commonly as vanity plates.

Connie Swaim is among those drivers: her license plate says ICLICK, a reference to the method of dog training she uses to help families with pets that have behavioral issues. The training uses a clicker, which makes a sound that the dog recognizes, rewarding behavior in a positive and non-invasive way.

"I want to keep dogs out of the shelter," Swaim said. "If I can get people to ask me, 'What does your license plate mean?' then I can open up a dialogue."

CBS4 Problem Solvers delved into the state's database of all PLPs after hearing from another driver with a message on his plate. Mike Weiss travels to Alabama several times in the spring and fall to go fishing, and he expresses that love of fishing through the plate GON FSHN. Weiss waited years to get the message after another driver stopped using it: before that, he used the message OUT FSHN.

"I’ve had people pull up beside me in traffic and say, 'Love your license plate,'" Weiss said.

Last year, Weiss started getting bills from Riverlink, the toll system that charges drivers for passage along the bridge that connects Indiana to Kentucky in the Louisville area. Despite using the bridge when he travels on his fishing trips, the charges were for times he wasn't driving in the area.

Weiss learned that the mix-up happened because the Indiana BMV issued a GON FSHN plate to another driver who frequently used the bridge. Photos obtained by Weiss show the car on the toll road, it's plate appearing identical to the one issued to Weiss.

"They checked it and they said, 'No, they’re different,' and I said, 'No, they’re not. I’m looking at the picture," Weiss said.

BMV officials told Weiss that the difference was in the spelling: one plate was spelled with the letter "O," the other with the number zero. Despite their insistence that the plates were different, though, Weiss continued to get the other driver's bills. That's why he contacted CBS4 Problem Solvers for help.

"There’s nothing like the bright sunshine on a problem to call attention to it," Weiss said.

An analysis of the state's database turned up more than 2,000 cases of personalized license plates issued with the same message, using various combinations of numbers swapped out for letters. In some cases, drivers spell a message up to 12 different ways, as in the following examples:

  • IMAGINE, 1MAGINE, 1MAG1NE, IMAG1NE
  • BATMAN, B4TM4N, B47M4N, B4TMAN, BATM4N, 3ATMAN, 84TMAN, 8ATMAN
  • BOILER, B01LER, B01L3R, B0ILER, B0IL3R, BO1L3R, BOI1ER, BOIL3R, 3O1LER, 3OILER, 801L3R, 8OILER

In around 800 cases, two plates have been issued to drivers with the same message, one spelled with the letter "O" and the other with the number zero, like in Weiss' case. Some messages even show up with multiple combinations of "O" and "0," as in these examples:

  • BOOKNRD, B00KNRD
  • GROOVY, GR00VY
  • VOODOO, VO0DO0, VOOD00, VOODO0

CBS4 Problem Solvers found some states across the country that do not issue "O" and "0" separately because they look so similar. In Illinois, which has a large vanity plate program, drivers cannot combine letters and numbers to spell a word at all.

Law enforcement concerns represent the biggest reason cited for such restrictions, because police officers most often use license plates. We took Weiss' case to Indiana State Police Sgt. John Perrine, who agreed the two GON FSHN plates looked the same.

"At the first glance, at the first look at this, it looks like the same exact plate," Perrine said.

Perrine said he had never seen a case like this, but he didn't go so far as to criticize the BMV, because he said officers do learn to try different combinations when they run a license plate. Indiana has a very large number of specialty plates and officers also have to identify the plate type before they run a license plate number through their system.

"There are times when you’re sitting on the side of the road and you do have to run a plate a couple of times because you’re seeing it wrong or you’re reading it wrong," Perrine said.

CBS4 Problem Solvers wanted to sit down with BMV officials to ask about the agency's policies, but a spokesperson would not make anyone available. Instead, she sent answers to written questions two weeks after receiving them.

Spokesperson Christine Meyer said in part, "When issues like this arise, the BMV follows our duplicate plate process. This process allows the person who had the plate first to keep the plate and requires the other person to select a different message." That process is spelled out in Indiana administrative code for the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

Meyer also said "the system only looks for true duplicates during processing," which explains why we found so many plates in the database that contained the same message spelled differently.

Weiss finally received relief four months after CBS4 Problem Solvers began investigating his GON FSHN case. The BMV used its duplicate plate process and contacted the other owner, who chose a new plate. Meyer pointed to the mix-up over toll fees as the reason the agency implemented the process in his case.

"Look at all we had to do to just get something simple like that fixed," Weiss said.

Meyer did not indicate that the BMV will take action in any other cases, but did say that anyone with a problem involving a personalized license plate should contact BMVLegal@bmv.in.gov.

If you have a problem you'd like CBS4 Problem Solvers to consider, contact us at ProblemSolvers@cbs4indy.com or 317-677-1544.

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