Home » Here’s Why You Never Give A Stranger Your Old License Plate

Here’s Why You Never Give A Stranger Your Old License Plate

Mercedes Plate Fiasco Ts
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Four years ago, I made a critical error in what was otherwise a normal, boring private sale of an old motorcycle. A guy bought my 1980 Honda Gold Wing as his first motorcycle. The man rode away with my license plate and I didn’t realize it until it was too late, yet nothing bad happened. Now, all of this time later, the motorcycle is finally coming back to bite me. The Honda has been passed on to at least four more people over the past four years, and none of them have bothered to title the bike in their name or take my plate off. Now I’m getting tickets in the mail. I’m not paying them. Instead, I’m going to fight back.

Loving cars and motorcycles like I do is a blessing and a curse. Between cars, motorcycles, and buses I’ve owned over 60 vehicles in my life. That’s a lot of buying and selling. If you think selling one or two hoopties on Facebook is bad, imagine having sold dozens of vehicles to the denizens of your state. I’ve seen it all from death threats and accused crimes to even proposals from thirsty men. Calling me pretty may make me blush, but you’re still paying $1,500 for my garbage Volkswagen.

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I’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way. I stopped giving my real address after the death threat and I try to do transactions in public places if I can. I always make sure my wife is present and nothing leaves my sight without cash in hand and a bill of sale. If the buyer is trying to come from a state or two away, I have to determine that they’re super serious, otherwise, I’d rather sell to someone somewhat nearby.

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All of these lessons have been learned through bad experiences. Something I learned early on was that you should remove your license plate from the vehicle. And if you’re the buyer and the seller leaves you with their plate, the responsible thing to do is discard them. But if that happened, I wouldn’t be writing about this broken Honda Gold Wing. Now I’m in big trouble.

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The Bike

The year is 2020. It’s the summer and I’ve been riding motorcycles for two years. My first and second bikes, which were purchased at about the same time, were a Buell Blast and a Honda Rebel 250. I grew out of those motorcycles within a couple of months and sold both of them. In their stead was my third motorcycle, a 1982 Suzuki GS850G, and my fourth motorcycle, a 1980 Honda Gold Wing.

I hit my newfound motorcycle passion running. Throughout 2018, 2019, and 2020, I purchased countless broken and barn find motorcycles, revived them, and then sold them. I didn’t do it for profit but just for the fun of it. Besides, it was a fantastic way to experience a bunch of vintage Japanese motorcycles in a rapid-fire manner. Through all of this, the Suzuki and the Honda remained my daily riders.

Gl1100

As the Honda’s story goes, the owner before me picked up the bike in a sorry state. He restored the bike to running order, giving it beautiful blue paint and a cushy seat. The motorcycle started life as a dresser, but he stripped it down to a naked wonder. He even simplified the fuel system. Old Gold Wings have four carbs laid out across the boxer engine and maintaining them can be a pain. So, a somewhat popular mod is tossing the four carbs in the garbage for one large carb meant for an air-cooled VW Beetle. This bike had that!

Sadly, the restorer never got to spend too much time with his motorcycle because he had to leave home to live on a military base. While there, he crashed his car, and the bike had to go to pay for repairs. That’s where I came in. I picked it up for $900 and rode away happy.

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Things were great for a while, but then the motorcycle began having issues starting. Some research revealed that the starter clutch was going. While that was happening, fuel economy was an atrocious 28 mpg and the front brake began sticking. I was going to fix all of this, but the nail in the coffin was when I was hours away in central Wisconsin and the right head gasket blew in spectacular manner.

Thankfully, I made it home, where I started looking into how to repair all of this. The poor fuel economy was because the motorcycle was running richer than Bill Gates, but so far as I could tell, the carb was fine. It just wasn’t the right carb for the job. The starter and head gasket problems would have required the motorcycle to come into multiple pieces. I didn’t have a garage of any kind at the time, so that wasn’t going to fly. Instead, I listed it for sale.

The Sale

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Selling the motorcycle was almost too easy. I listed it for sale for about what I paid and the messages poured in. One of the prospective buyers wanted to get the motorcycle right away and he offered me exactly what I wanted to sell the motorcycle for. His plan was to fix the issues and use it as a first bike. Admittedly, I probably wouldn’t use an old Gold Wing as a first motorcycle, but it’s not my business if that was the route he wanted to take.

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The guy came by one Sunday afternoon and took the Honda for a spin. He noted the issues and the bike seemed solid enough for him. We exchanged cash, filled out a bill of sale, filled out the title, and then we both went on our way.

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It wasn’t until days later that I realized I made a critical error. I did everything I should have but removed the license plate. I heard horror stories of people committing crimes with vehicles registered to other people. I didn’t want that to happen to me, but it was too late. He was gone and I couldn’t find his information to contact or find him. My lousy bill of sale didn’t even have his address or phone number.

I was extremely hard on myself, and maybe rightfully so. I sold enough vehicles by that point that removing a license plate should have been instinct. But I was a bonehead and didn’t do it.

The state of Illinois does offer some protection when this happens. At the bottom of every new Illinois title is a slip of paper that notifies the state when your vehicle changes hands. Well, that’s what it does in theory, anyway. You fill it out and mail it in. If you’re lucky, the state will go after the goober racking up fines with your plates rather than go after you.

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Unfortunately, in my experience either these little slips of paper never make it to the state or the state doesn’t process them, so they’re just as worthless as the paper they’re printed on. Still, it seemed like everything was fine. Weeks turned into months and months turned into years. I never got a ticket or heard anything bad about my old bike. Maybe the buyer did the right thing and tossed the plate when they got home.

I Didn’t Knock On Wood

Well, maybe I shouldn’t have gotten too comfortable.

Fb Goldwing

 

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When I’m bored, I check Facebook Marketplace for vehicles I sold in the past. I like to see what has happened to them. Sometimes I luck out and find my old vehicle, just to learn that the vehicle was fixed or blew up because the buyer didn’t listen to me. Oh well.

Things were different in April. I saw my old Gold Wing pop up for sale. Based on the listing’s description, someone fixed the head gasket and the starter, but let the bike fall apart everywhere else. The video attached to the ad showed that the bike ran like total dog crap, worse than when I owned it.

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My fascination with the Honda’s condition was cut short when I saw the rear of the bike. I remember my license plates and the one in the ad was one I hadn’t seen for four years. Yep, this guy was riding around on my license plate, which by that time had been expired for five years. I then started digging into the seller and the guy I sold it to.

By my count, the guy I sold the Honda to gave it to another guy. That guy may have sold it to the guy who sold the Honda in April. That’s at least four changes in ownership since I had it and there could have been even more ownership links I’m missing. None of these four or more guys ever bothered to title the bike or remove my license plate from it.

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How do I know? Yesterday, I received two letters from the City of Chicago Department of Finance. At first, I was going to breathe a saddened sigh that I must have gotten tagged by Chicago’s infamously shady red light cameras. But then I remembered that I hadn’t taken one of my own vehicles into Chicago this year. Furthermore, the letters addressed me by my dead name, a name I haven’t been legally tied to for at least five years.

It suddenly made sense when I cracked open the letters. The fourth owner (at least), since I sold the Honda, is now riding around the city on my plates. They earned two tickets: One for the super expired plate and one for parking on a street on a street cleaning day. Two fines racking up a total of $120 addressed to yours truly.

The Problem

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In theory, I could just pay these tickets and go on with my life. Some people might do just that, effectively punishing themselves for leaving a plate on a sold vehicle. Some people might decide to ignore the tickets because it’s not their vehicle anymore, so it shouldn’t be their problem. Both of these are the wrong move.

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If someone is willing to get tickets in your name, they will be willing to rack up more. You will never stop paying for tickets. And if the person is running tolls, and I’m certain this person is, your fines will get expensive quickly. I’m waiting for the toll violations to roll in.

If you ignore these tickets, now you have another big problem. If you get enough unpaid tickets, the City of Chicago will boot your car the next time an officer sees it. And I mean they’ll boot any car registered in your name, not just the one that has tickets piling up. You also don’t want to screw with the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority, which has the power to ruin your life in a jiffy.

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So, the only path forward is to prove that I sold the bike and people have been jumping my title. Here’s where my wife and lawyer come in. Chicago gives you the ability to contest tickets either online, by mail, or in person. Sheryl says that for a case as complex as this, you don’t want to take chances doing things online or by mail. You need to argue your case in person.

Unfortunately for me, the little slip of paper that I sent to the state clearly never made it or was never processed. It’s been four years since then, so who knows where it is now. In another bonehead move, I also lost my bill of sale. Thankfully, I do take frequent screenshots and can do some solid research. I have proof I sold the motorcycle in 2020 and proof someone else was selling it in April 2024. I don’t know who bought the bike in April, but as Sheryl tells me, that’s going to be the seller’s problem, not mine.

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So, sometime in the near future I will have to enter a stuffy government building in Chicago to fight my case. While Sheryl is confident I can get out of these two tickets, the future is uncertain. In her experience, the city often doesn’t update its records in cases like these. If Chicago never updates that license plate in its systems, I will continue to get tickets and will have to fight every single one. Meanwhile, the guy running on my plate gets to do whatever he wants because legally, it’s still my motorcycle, not his.

Another side annoyance is the fact that Chicago is not allowing me to contest these tickets in my legal name, but the name written on the violation. So, that’s going to be fun.

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Then there’s the tollway violations I’ll inevitably get. I’ll have to fight the state itself to get out of those, and the state really doesn’t like being told it’s wrong. If I continue to get tickets, the nuclear option will be to sue the latest seller. After all, jumping titles four times is pretty illegal. Sheryl says I can also report the license plate as lost or stolen, which will spell bad news to the guy racking up tickets in my name.

This is all a long way of saying that I made a small mistake that is biting me hard four years later. There’s a whole lot of suck coming and it could have been prevented. Always remove license plates before selling your vehicle to a stranger. And if you’re the buyer, don’t take license plates as permission to do whatever you want. Remove those plates and toss them, destroy them, hang them on a wall, or turn them into floorboards. Do anything but ruin that previous owner’s summer.

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As for my situation, this is only heating up. I will go through the entire headache of fixing this so that maybe, you’ll have an easier time going through it, too.

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ToeMotor
ToeMotor
21 days ago

Yep…. found out the hard way.
In the mid 80s, my mom sold our 76 Aspen Wagon to some guy. She didnt know to take the plates off, and started getting tickets in the mail. After a few months, mom was able to convince the police that she had indeed sold the car, and she was no longer in possession of it. She still continued to get an occasional ticket, and the tickets had the location of the offense (usually overnight parking tickets), so I had a good idea where this guy lived.
So 1 night after some drinking, me and some buddies went for a late night ride…. all Ill say is if that guy ever got the car back on the road, it probably cost more that the tickets were worth….

NDPilot
NDPilot
23 days ago

I had a similar.experience. Moved out of state with a SD licensed pickup. Sold it in the new state but let the plates go with it. In the past SD had been a state which the plates went with the vehicle, but they’d changed sometime recent to that sale, and the new state was a keep your plates state as well so I should have kept them in either case. Several years later I got a notice in the mail that a different vehicle with my plates on it was reported speeding past a stopped school bus offloading kids in the town I had lived in back in SD! Had to make some phone calls to clear that one up, and I wonder if somone didnt write down the offenders plate incorrectly as it seems a little too coincidental that my old plates made it back to SD on another vehicle. Either way lesson learned!

Seebeexee
Seebeexee
25 days ago

Mercedes: If the motorcycle is for sale relatively close to you, why not contact the seller posing as an interested buyer. Then, meet up with them to “check out” the motorcycle, and remove your license plate from the motorcycle either after you round the corner on a test ride, or just right in front of them. You’re not stealing anything since it’s your plate; plus, since they’re at least four degrees away from you with the bike having changed hands so many times, and since you’ve changed your name since you owned it, they won’t know you’re the owner of the plate.

If the bike isn’t local to you or for sale any more, definitely report the plate stolen and make sure the state has the motorcycle on record as having been sold.

NebraskaStig
NebraskaStig
24 days ago
Reply to  Seebeexee

I feel it’s a bit implied that Mercedes knew the correct avenue for trying to ‘sneak they’re plate away’. As much as one of us might try and pull this, teto.

Jb996
Jb996
25 days ago

“I can also report the license plate as lost or stolen.”
That’s the first thing I would do!

Drive By Commenter
Drive By Commenter
25 days ago

If I recall correctly, in NY the plates follow the owner’s registration, not the car. So plates move vehicles or get destroyed. So this could well happen in NY also.

Tim R
Tim R
25 days ago

Just tell the current seller you want to buy it, take off the tag and run!

Nycbjr
Nycbjr
25 days ago

I had a similar problem when I bought my Veloster in 2020. I was issued a temp NJ license plate, about 2 weeks after I bought it I started receiving mail from the MTA bridge and tolls division about past violations (long before I bought my car) totally about 3000. The violation clearly was for a BMW and before the date of sale. Because of the pandemic it took months to clear up!

Cryptoenologist
Cryptoenologist
25 days ago

Many states handle this differently, in Minnesota and California the plates and registration status stay with the car or motorcycle. It doesn’t matter what the buyer does, the important thing is that you as the seller, fills out your portion of the title and submits it to the DMV. Once they have that, you are officially off the hook for the car. People still forget to do it(it’s free and extremely simple) and end up with the same problem you are describing.

Angry Bob
Angry Bob
25 days ago

In Virginia, you have to keep the vehicle insured until you turn in the license plates. The DMV randomly sends out letters requiring verification and it’s a $400 fine if you’ve dropped the insurance and not handed in the plates.

There is a loophole that you only have to turn in one. So I have a big box full of plates that will someday become a mosaic on my garage wall.

Rexracer
Rexracer
25 days ago

There are states (Oregon) that you do not remove the plate, its assigned to the car. The key is going online and entering that you have sold the vehicle, so they have it flagged in their system.

TheDrunkenWrench
TheDrunkenWrench
25 days ago

When the car is a reasonable distance to me, I ask that to drive it home on the plates and they follow, or that they follow me in the car and remove the plates in my driveway. It’s worked more than it hasn’t.

Once we’re more than an hour out, I’m biting the bullet and renting a U-Haul.

Rob Schneider
Rob Schneider
25 days ago

My brother-in-law sold/gave (not sure on the details) a nephew a vehicle to take off to college out of state, about a thousand miles away. The nephew never bothered to retitle it and get new tags. Eventually the tags expired, and he apparently abandoned the car on the street.

My BIL got several letter from the state via certified mail, demanding hundreds and hundreds of dollars in parking tickets, towing and impound fees. I think it eventually totalled over $1,500.

He wrote a notarized letter to the state explaining the situation and provided proof he and his wife were in their home state during virtually all of the infraction period (work records from their employers) and possibly a quit claim on the vehicle, and the letters stopped.

I’m guessing the state auctioned the car to recoup the fines & fees, but my BIL won’t be setting foot in a particular desert southwest state for awhile.

Jonathan Green
Jonathan Green
25 days ago

I loaned my dad my car, to take my mom to the doctor, while their car was in the shop. They have handicapper plates; I do not.

My dad wasn’t paying attention, and parked in a handicapper’s space, so a ticket followed.

He called me and said “Guess What? I got you a ticket!”

I did fight the ticket, and since I know the judge, we all got a good laugh out of it (FYI, I’m in the business, so nothing untoward about this).

Best advice I can give is be 100% truthful and contrite. Technically, you blew it, so it won’t go over well if you start raising hell…

MY LEG!
MY LEG!
25 days ago
Reply to  Jonathan Green

It took me a minute to process that when you used “handicapper” plates, you weren’t meaning a speciality plate for Nevada related to the gaming industry.

Balloondoggle
Balloondoggle
25 days ago

I do more than report the plate stolen, I’d report the BIKE stolen. Ha! Take that, carefree parking violator!!

Cal67
Cal67
25 days ago

If none of the 4(+) owners subsequent to you have never titled it in their name, I assume that means they have been driving around without insurance as well?

Grey alien in a beige sedan
Grey alien in a beige sedan
25 days ago

Yeah, definitely report the plate as stolen. Good luck dealing with the City of Chicago… they suck when it comes to tickets, they are just awful. Had one there in the early aughts that was a HUGE pain and it wasn’t my car either.

notoriousDUG
notoriousDUG
25 days ago

I had to answer a lot of police questions after a vehicle I left the plates on was used in a robbery a few days later.
Fortunately, I had written a bill of sale, with the new owner’s DL number…

I always keep my plates now.

MY LEG!
MY LEG!
25 days ago
Reply to  notoriousDUG

Oh shit. Did the new owner give any weird vibes or tells he wasn’t legit?

notoriousDUG
notoriousDUG
25 days ago
Reply to  MY LEG!

Not that stand out beyond being the sort of person who buys a rot box suburban.

Andy the Swede
Andy the Swede
25 days ago

Ouch, what a weird, useless system.

Here in Sweden, licence plates always go with the car unless you have a personalized one.

Even though you can still make a transaction on paper, 95% uses the Swedish Road Agencys phone app to make change the registration from seller to buyer.

Through this process, the buyer needs to enter his/her driver’s licence data so that the seller can see that it is valid. Also, the buyer will be able to see if there are any unpaid tickets on the vehicle as these will pop up in the system.

This process is so simple and protects both seller and buyer.

Ben Chia
Ben Chia
25 days ago
Reply to  Andy the Swede

Yeah this is the case in most countries actually. I never understood the American system of having the plates follow the owner and not the vehicle.

MY LEG!
MY LEG!
25 days ago
Reply to  Ben Chia

Might be a workaround way to get an ID without requiring a national ID for fear of being the mark of the beast.

Balloondoggle
Balloondoggle
25 days ago
Reply to  MY LEG!

It’s how they get more money for the same car. Sell it after you’ve renewed your registration for the year, then hit the new owner for the same money. Cha-CHING!

MY LEG!
MY LEG!
25 days ago
Reply to  Balloondoggle

Yeah, the money angle makes more sense. I keep forgetting most people default to trading up to keep up with the Joneses after what, three/five years? iirc? Instead of driving their cars to death or trading in for something they really want.

Mike B
Mike B
25 days ago
Reply to  Ben Chia

There’s the intelligent way, and there’s the ‘Murican way!

EricTheViking
EricTheViking
25 days ago

I mentioned a couple of tedious jobs with my 1982 Buick Skylard in the previous article, “What Is The Most Tedious Repair Job You’ve Ever Done?” I’d like to make a single addendum to the aforementioned comment.

I sold my Skylard to a very sketchy, dodgy, shady, shifty guy. I didn’t think much of the numberplates…

A several months later, I received a curious letter from Immigration and Naturalization Service (that was in the late 1980s), asking me whether I owned this said vehicle. In the letter, the INS was generous enough to explain the circumstances involving my former car with severe case of polydipsia.

During the sales transaction, I neglected to warn the buyer about the car’s tendency to drain the fuel tank faster than SR-71 Blackbird (revealing this glaring issue would kill the sales fast). So, he apparently misjudged the distance the car would travel before running out of petrol while crossing US-Mexico border somewhere in the southern Texas. He was caught smuggling the illegal aliens in the trunk, and the Skylard was seized as an accessory to the crime.

I responded that I had sold the car a long time ago, and I included a copy of the bill of sales. Then, not a word from INS ever since…

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