Paying online? Be sure who you’re dealing with

A customer waits for his appointment at DMV office near Sacramento. Going in person can be easy, if you have an appointment.
A customer waits for his appointment at DMV office near Sacramento. Going in person can be easy, if you have an appointment. The Sacramento Bee

Life is full of traps and pitfalls, and technology sometimes increases them. My efforts to renew my vehicle registration provides a good example.

It’s an old car, so I started with an old-school approach. As I’ve done for the past half-century, I put a check in the mail to Sacramento several weeks before the deadline to register.

But the registration deadline came and went with no response. So, I resorted to technology – which is supposed to save time and energy. I opened my computer and found the DMV website. I entered my VIN and license plate numbers, and soon discovered the registration for my car was considered past due and now was accumulating late fees.

Frustrated, I closed my computer and pondered my next move. Eventually, I decided to try a new-school approach and pay my registration online, since I didn’t want to drive with expired plates.

So I re-opened my computer and went to the first website that came up when I searched for “California DMV.” I recognized the page with the blanks for me to fill in the VIN and license plate numbers.

Sure enough, my car came up again, showing the late fee and the date at which it would increase if I didn’t pay immediately. So I input my credit card number and waited for the final bill to appear. I was shocked to see, besides the registration fee and late fee, a hefty service charge for the online service. I was irritated but paid all fees and charges.

Optimistically, I assumed DMV would eventually realize it had misplaced my check. And, being public servants, the folks at the DMV would refund everything I had paid online.

Eventually my new tag came in the mail and I affixed it to my license plate. But I still hadn’t heard anything about the check I had mailed. So I bit the bullet and made an appointment at the Los Banos DMV office, which over the years has treated me professionally.

At my appointed time, a friendly person behind the DMV counter patiently entered the VIN number of my car and eventually discovered my account showed I had indeed paid twice, which meant the check had indeed been received in Sacramento. Great, I thought, my refund is in the mail.

This, however, was not the case. The clerk informed me that, per DMV rules, to get a refund, I would have to fill out, sign and submit a form, which she kindly handed me.

OK, I told her, I’ll request on the form a refund of the whole amount – original fee, late fee and service charge. “Service charge?” she asked. “We don’t add a service charge for paying online.”

“Huh?” I responded.

To summarize a long story, I had fallen into a trap. Doing some checking, I discovered that the first website my DMV search produced was a private site providing a “service” of paying the DMV for me.

Except they weren’t performing any service. If I had selected the official DMV site, one click below, I could have paid my original fee and the late fee with no service charge at all. The commercial site had tricked me by using a format on their page that looked exactly like the official DMV site (which I had visited before).

In my irritation at having been tricked, I wrote a letter to the DMV. To its credit, the agency eventually sent me a refund for the base registration fee and late fee, but it could do nothing about the “service” charge. I was out of luck and out some dough.

What advice can I give to avoid this scam? First, sending a check in the mail might not work so well in today’s world. But if you go online, beware of the traps being set by companies who disguise their sites to resemble the official DMV site. Don’t be a sucker. Look at the last three letters in the website name – .com means it is often a commercial site; official sites, like DMV’s, often end in “ca.gov”.

Worse yet, The Sacramento Bee wrote last September that such sites often sell a consumer’s information to others. The DMV asks anyone who encounters such a site to report it to DMV investigators at reportfraud@dmv.ca.gov.

LIKE MANY OTHERS Westside residents, I want to thank Jerry O’Banion for representing us superbly during his many years as a member of Merced County Board of Supervisors. My many positive memories of Jerry’s service includes his steadfast support for libraries and his perfect attendance at Arbor Day celebrations in Los Banos. Jerry has been an example of a “servant leader,” someone who tries to do what’s best for all. I wish Jerry and his wife Dolly many wonderful years ahead.

John Spevak is a resident of Los Banos; he wrote this for the Los Banos Enterprise. Email john.spevak@gmail.com.