Covering License Plates Online: Why?

Here’s why people cover license plates online such as on Facebook or Craigslist:

Most people who cover their license plates online probably do it to try to hide a little bit of personal information. 

They might be concerned with what a person could learn and do with just a license plate number. 

It’s not something you definitely need to do yourself, but people who do are often worried about privacy.

So if you want to learn all about why people cover their license plates online, then you’re in the right place.

Let’s get started!

Covering License Plates Online: Why? (Facebook, Craigslist?)

Why Do People Cover Their License Plates Online?

Ultimately, a person can have any motivation they like to cover up things in a photograph. 

I can’t really get inside their heads and tell you what they are thinking. 

But, there are online discussions to this effect, and there is an emerging trend in those discussions.

It seems that people cover up license plate numbers in order to protect their identities. 

License plate numbers are generated by government organizations, and the numbers are typically attached to the personal information of the person on file for any given number.

The prevailing theory is that if a malicious person has your license plate number, they can use it to get other personal information and cause all kinds of problems.

Another Motive

There’s a secondary issue that has nothing to do with stolen identities or other malicious behaviors. 

Sometimes, people cover up a license plate number because they are trying to hide something. 

If a social media photo includes potentially compromising information, hiding the license plate number adds a little bit of obscurity to the situation.

Here are two examples.

First, if the photo includes less-than-legal activities or items, then hiding the license plate number can help hide their identity from the police. 

I’ll get into this more in another section, but if the photo is taken in a closed place where you aren’t supposed to be, hiding the license plate at least makes it harder for the authorities to know who you are (although this often isn’t enough to stay hidden).

In another example, you can imagine someone getting out of a bad relationship and moving to a different state. 

Hiding the license plate can prevent a previous partner from identifying the new state of residence. 

This is a specific example, but there are probably other reasons to hide a license plate from people you know if you think about it enough.

If you think a little more, you can see why just hiding the license plate might not be enough. 

It’s probably better not to take a picture with the vehicle in the first place.

What Can Someone Do With a License Plate Number? (3 Things)

Still, the leading reasoning seems to be that people worry about having their identities or personal information stolen by posting a license plate online. 

So, let’s explore that. 

What can someone really do with a license plate number?

Before I cover the specific answers to that question, it’s important to explain something. 

Most of the concepts listed below involve information that is stored by the DMV or equivalent government entity. 

In many cases, it is very difficult but not technically impossible to do the things I’m going to explain.

This is not a piece of advice as to whether or not you should cover your own license plate number in online photos. 

It’s just a discussion of what can and cannot be done.

#1 Find Car Information

First off, you can find information about a car using the license plate. 

You can get the make, model, and year of a vehicle. 

This information is definitely stored in motor vehicle registration departments, but it’s not exactly something to worry about.

An expert (or even enthusiast) in cars can identify a lot of vehicles down to the make, model, and year (or year range) just by looking at the photo. 

They don’t need the license plate to do this.

Regardless, the fear is that by getting information about the vehicle, car thieves can better determine if the car is worth stealing. 

They can then pair the car information with social media info to find the person and steal the car.

This is not a major risk. 

There are plenty of ways for motivated car thieves to find vehicles to steal. 

They don’t need Facebook photos for this. 

But, it is definitely possible to figure out the make, model, and year of a car based on an online photo, especially if it includes a license plate number.

#2 Get Registration Information

My guess is that people who participate in the practice of covering their license plates are actually more worried about their personal information than car information.

Through vehicle registration, your license plate is attached to your name, address, and additional personal information (depending on where you live). 

The DMV (or whatever organization handles this where you live) keeps all of this on file, so if someone gained access to that file, they would know a lot about you.

Now, normal people can’t just look up that file as they see fit. 

In the U.S., Canada, across Europe, and in many other countries around the world, this is protected information. 

Only authorized personnel can look at vehicle registration files.

That means that an average stranger can’t learn your personal information just from your license plate number.

(This is why it’s perfectly fine to park on the street without covering your license plate.)

But, I’m talking about what’s possible, and in those terms, a talented social engineer could conceivably gain access to restricted motor vehicle registration files.

For those unfamiliar with the term, social engineering is a phrase that describes the many ways one person can trick another into behaving in certain ways. 

In this instance, social engineering could be used to trick a DMV agent into revealing personal information in vehicle registration. 

There are probably other ways to go about it, but the real point here is that a tricky enough person might be able to access your registration file even though it’s not permitted.

#3 Steal Your Identity

Assuming a nefarious individual did manage to get their hands on your registration information, things could get worse. 

Part of the information that is collected by the DMV (or any other agency) would include your driver’s license information, and that can be used in a lot of bad ways.

Your driver’s license has your name, address, physical description, and license number all right there. 

That’s enough information for a lot of identity thieves to do their thing and completely or partially steal your identity.

Again, none of this is easy. 

If it was, thieves could just look at the license plate numbers of cars in parking lots in any city in the world and have a field day. 

But, difficult and impossible are not the same thing, so this is a potential outcome.

What Can the Authorities Do With Your License Plate Number? (2 Things)

Identity theft and nefarious individuals weren’t the only motivating factors I brought up earlier. 

I also mentioned that people might want to hide something from the authorities.

In the earlier example, we considered someone taking a photo in a restricted area. 

Covering the license plate makes sense because the authorities can use that information to find you, and I’ll explain how in a moment.

Before that, let’s cover the obvious. 

If you’re posting such a photo on a social media account, even without the license plate, the authorities can still find you. 

This is a half-measure at best.

In reality, posting photos of yourself committing crimes on the internet is probably a bad idea.

#1 Find the Vehicle

Ok. The first thing the cops can do if they have your license plate is find your vehicle. 

No, that doesn’t mean they can easily track your exact location. 

Instead, the authorities have reasonably quick access to all of those DMV files I just told you about. 

They don’t have to trick anyone. 

They can just ask.

It’s the primary reason why your information is on file. 

If the authorities need to track down your vehicle, they can find where you live and your contact information easily.

It’s by design.

#2 Find the Person

On top of that, the authorities can use your registration and license information to find out a lot about you. 

They can combine that with generic social media searching, and depending on how you have everything set up, they might be able to find your current location with ease (social media allows you to tag your current location, so this is only hard if you turn those kinds of services off).

Again, this is the whole point of registration. 

If you post a compromising photo of yourself with your license plate in the photo, the authorities absolutely can find you and hold it against you. 

Of course, they have to notice the photo first, but that’s a different long conversation.

Don’t Forget to Take the Cover Off!

With all of this talk about covering license plates, I want to give you a friendly reminder. 

In the U.S., UK, Canada, and many, many other countries, it’s illegal to drive around with your plates covered. 

If you do cover them to take a photo remember to remove the cover. 

If you obscure the license plate with photo editing, then there’s nothing to worry about here.


  • Theresa McDonough

    Tech entrepreneur and founder of Tech Medic, who has become a prominent advocate for the Right to Repair movement. She has testified before the US Federal Trade Commission and been featured on CBS Sunday Morning, helping influence change within the tech industry.

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