Tracking a car by its license plate number may seem like a daunting task, but with the right tools and techniques, it is possible. Having the ability to locate a car can be useful for a variety of reasons – from keeping tabs on a teen driver to recovering a stolen vehicle or even catching a cheating spouse.
In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the ins and outs of tracking a car by license plate.
Let’s start by understanding exactly what a license plate is and how the system works.
Overview of License Plates
A license plate, also known as a number plate or registration plate, is a metal or plastic plate attached to a motor vehicle for official identification purposes. The license plate bears a unique combination of letters and numbers that registers the vehicle to its owner within a particular jurisdiction.
How License Plates Work
Every state or province has a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or equivalent agency that oversees vehicle registration and license plate issuance. When you register a vehicle, the DMV assigns it a license plate that ties to your name and address in their records.
Law enforcement uses license plates for identifying vehicles and their owners. For example, if a driver commits a traffic violation, the officer can run the plate to pull up the registration details. The plate also enables law enforcement to track down stolen vehicles or auto owners with outstanding warrants.
Besides law enforcement, private companies and everyday citizens can use a license plate number to obtain information on a vehicle and its owner through public records. However, the level of accessible data depends on local regulations.
Is it Legal to Track a Car by License Plate?
Given how much information is tied to a license plate, you may be wondering – is it legal for me to track a car by plate number?
The short answer is yes – with some caveats.
Thanks to privacy laws like the Federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA), the amount of information available to the public is limited. You cannot simply run a random license plate and get access to the owner’s home address and other personal details.
However, through legitimate services, it is legal to track down non-personal vehicle information associated with a plate. This includes:
- Vehicle make, model, year
- Registration status
- Accident history
- Title checks
- Odometer readings
- Recall issues
This kind of vehicle history data enables people to research cars they are considering buying to make an informed decision. It’s also useful for insurance claims, law enforcement, auto dealerships, and more.
When Plate Tracking May Be Illegal
While a certain degree of license plate tracking is allowed under the law, there are limitations. Here are some circumstances where tracking a car by its plate could be illegal:
- Stalking/harassment – Using plate info to monitor someone’s location and movements without their consent for nefarious purposes.
- Accessing protected data – Retrieving statutorily protected personal info on a vehicle owner like their home address, without permissible purpose.
- Impersonating law enforcement – Falsely claiming to be law enforcement to access DMV records.
- Reselling data – Obtaining plate data through legal methods then reselling it for unapproved purposes like marketing and solicitation.
In summary, you must have a valid, lawful reason to track a vehicle by plate. Acting outside of legally designated boundaries could result in heavy penalties. When in doubt, consult local laws and regulations first.
Practical Methods to Track a Car by License Plate
Assuming you have a legitimate purpose, how do you actually track down a car by its license plate number? Here are the main approaches:
Use a License Plate Lookup Service
The easiest way for the average person to track a car by plate is using an online license plate lookup service. These services provide instant access to vehicle history reports by simply searching the license plate.
Popular options include:
- CARFAX – Offers unlimited license plate look ups for $39.99/month plus reports on specific VINs.
- EpicVIN – Has single plate look ups for as low as $2.99 as well as subscription plans.
- VinFreeCheck – Features affordable pay-per-search and unlimited monthly plans.
These services are very user-friendly. Just enter the plate, optionally select a state, and immediately receive a report if records match. The report contains vehicle specs, title information, accident history, and more.
- Fast, easy, and affordable access to vehicle history
- Available to everyday citizens
- Convenient online and mobile search options
- May miss vehicle history details like maintenance, repairs, ownership gaps
- Limited personal details beyond make, model, year due to privacy regulations
Use a Private Investigator
For more comprehensive tracking beyond basic vehicle history, hire a private investigator (PI). Their access to motor vehicle records and resources exceeds what consumers can get independently online.
With enough time and money, a skilled PI can uncover details like:
- Current legal owner
- Previous owners
- Detailed usage and accident history
- Exact current location
This information gives you greater context about a vehicle and how it’s being used. For example, a PI could help provide proof of a cheating spouse’s whereabouts.
- Access to more complete records, including some personal details
- Investigative expertise to connect all the dots
- Precise tracking of a vehicle’s movements
- Very expensive, often exceeding $100/hour
- Information may still be limited by data privacy regulations
- Questionable legality if taken too far
Install a GPS Tracker
For ongoing monitoring of a vehicle’s movements, installing a GPS tracker directly on the car is an option. This device covertly attaches to the vehicle’s chassis and transmits real-time location data to your phone or computer.
Popular consumer choices include:
- LandAirSea GPS Tracker – Hardwired, magnetic, and battery-powered options
- Optimus Tracker – Hardwired and magnetic models with driver behavior alerts
- PrimeTracking – Live location view, geofences, and text/email alerts
See this guide for some of the most affordable DIY methods to setup GPS tracking in a vehicle.
- Real-time location tracking of your target car
- Alerts for unusual driving activity or movements
- Works 24/7 for active monitoring
- Monthly service fees, sometimes over $25/month
- Installation can be difficult without vehicle access
- Legal grey area depending on your tracking motives
While potentially very effective, GPS tracking treads into ethically questionable territory. Make sure to research laws – illicit use could mean massive fines or jail time. Only use this method if you have owner consent or explicit legal right to track the vehicle.
Use Street Cameras and License Plate Readers
A high-tech approach used by law enforcement is employing street cameras and automatic license plate reader (LPR) systems to track vehicles. As cars drive through equipped areas, specially designed cameras capture photos and videos of plates that are tied to GPS coordinates. Sophisticated software converts the plate images into text that can be instantly checked against databases.
Police can then pinpoint the exact location and time a suspect vehicle traveled through the LPR grid. Some agencies accumulate millions of plate reads per week to generate near-real-time tracking across wide areas.
Accessing such systems requires special legal authorization and expertise, but may be an option for private investigators or connected professionals.
- Large-scale, automated scanning of all passing plates
- Integrates license plate data with timestamped photos/video
- Near-real-time monitoring capabilities
- Extremely expensive gear and software
- Requires authority to tap into law enforcement systems
- Raises major privacy concerns if misused
This method is really only practical for law enforcement or well-funded private entities. Everyday consumers would not be able to utilize LPR technology for personal tracking efforts.
Tips for Responsible License Plate Tracking
If you do opt to track a car by its license plate, keep these tips in mind to stay safe, legal, and ethical:
- Look up your own plates – Searching your personal vehicles is always permissible and wise. But respect others’ privacy.
- Follow the law – Never lie, impersonate officials, hack systems, or access protected data.
- Don’t track randomly – Only search plates when you have a legitimate safety, legal, or business need.
- Get owner consent – Avoid secretly tracking others without their permission.
- Research first – Fully understand the laws and regulations in your state.
- Use sparingly – Don’t abuse plate lookup services or over-track.
- Share responsibly – Be careful disclosing plate data to others or on social media.
- Secure devices – Lock down devices used for tracking to prevent data leaks.
- Anonymize when possible – Mask plate numbers if sharing tracking details publicly.
Following these tips will keep your tracking activities safe, productive, and considerate of others.
Tracking down a car by license plate, when done properly, can provide valuable information about a vehicle. Here are the key points to remember:
- License plates are official government IDs for motor vehicles that register cars to owners.
- It is generally legal to track cars by plate to obtain non-personal vehicle history data.
- Common methods include license plate lookup services, private investigators, GPS trackers, and law enforcement tools like street cameras.
- Only track vehicles you own or have explicit permission for. Follow the law and respect privacy.
- Use reputable services sparingly and share info cautiously. Anonymize plates where possible.
With the right approach, license plate tracking can be an effective method to learn more about an automobile for legitimate purposes.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it illegal to track a license plate?
Tracking a license plate is legal in many cases, but can be illegal if done: without consent, by impersonating law enforcement, to steal private data, or for harassment/stalking. Know your local laws.
Can anyone look up a license plate?
Most people can legally access non-personal vehicle details tied to a license plate through services like CARFAX and EpicVIN. Private investigators can access more records.
Can license plate lookups find names?
Basic online lookups will not provide personal owner info like names due to DPPA privacy regulations. But a private investigator may be able to obtain names legally through official requests.
Can a cell phone track a license plate?
Not directly. But an app on your phone could potentially photograph a plate then use an online service or image recognition AI to identify and track that vehicle.
Are license plate lookups free?
Most license plate lookup services charge a fee, ranging from a few dollars per report to monthly subscriptions. Limited free options only provide basic registration details.
Can someone track me by my license plate?
It’s possible to obtain non-personal vehicle history on your car through basic plate lookups. More intrusive tracking is illegal without consent. Use plate covers when parked to hide.
How far back can a license plate be tracked?
Online databases typically go back to the 1980s, but private sources may retain older archives. Plate formats have changed over the decades, limiting very old searches.
Can a license plate be traced to a location?
Plate numbers alone do not reveal locations, only vehicle records. But if combined with GPS tracking or cameras, plates can potentially be tied to coordinates and addresses.
Are there any license plate tracking apps?
Yes, apps like PlateSmart allow photographers to capture license plates then run lookups and tracking. These are marketed to auto dealers, insurers, and private investigators.
What can police see when they run a license plate?
Law enforcement has access to full DMV records when checking a plate, including the registered owner’s name, address, and additional personal details beyond just the vehicle information.
I hope this guide provided you with a comprehensive overview of tracking cars by license plate. Responsible use of this technique can help locate vehicles for legal, insurance, and investigative purposes. But be sure to follow proper procedures and respect privacy rights. With the right approach, plate tracking can be an effective tool for certain applications. Just use it selectively, judiciously, and above all – legally.