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Should I Stick My Thumb Over the License Plate When I'm Selling My Car Online?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro October 2017

Friday is here, and that means it's time for the latest round of "Ask Doug," your favorite weekly column here on Oversteer where you "ask Doug" questions about automobiles, and Doug laughs at you and tells you that you're dumber than a Cheerio.

If you'd like to participate in Ask Doug, you can! Just e-mail me at OversteerDoug@gmail.com, and I will happily read your question, and possibly even answer it here on Oversteer if it's halfway decent. If it isn't halfway decent, I may also answer it here on Oversteer, just to mock you.

Today's question comes to me from a viewer I've named Filbert. Filbert writes:

Hello Doug,

I've noticed many online ads for used cars with the license plate hastily blacked out with editing, or even worse, a thumb stuck between the camera lens and the car itself. You've mentioned many times how much information CarFax can supply about a car and its owner, just by looking at the license plate. So, since I'm about to sell my 2011 Mustang (red, 58,000 miles, one owner, perfect condition -- in case anyone was looking), I was wondering, should I, too, stick my thumb up to block the license plate when I take the picture? How much information can a nosy passerby glean from just my license plate? Or, does it not really matter and I would remain completely anonymous? What would Doug do in this case?

Thanks, and keep up the good work!

Filbert

What Filbert is asking here, folks, is this: When he goes to sell his car, should he cover up the license plate with his thumb?

The answer to this, Filbert, is quite simple: NO. And if you want a more detailed answer: ABSOLUTELY NOT.

Although this answer should suffice, as it's coming from a major automotive industry expert who once intentionally backed a Kia Spectra into a light pole, I will provide a little more detail for you now. There are two basic reasons why you shouldn't cover up your license plate with your thumb.

The first and most obvious reason, Filbert, is that it looks truly stupid. Nothing says to me that a person is unprepared and incompetent quite like covering up their license plate with a thumb. Basically, what it means is that they got the car to the location where they wanted to take the pictures -- usually their driveway, facing into direct sunlight -- and they were too lazy to retrieve a screwdriver to remove the license plate properly. Even a piece of paper would be better. Even using a simple free photo editor to edit out the license plate once the picture is on the seller's computer. ANYTHING would be better than the thumb.

In all honesty, Filbert, what the thumb tells me is that the seller is incredibly, pathetically lazy, and that's probably how he maintained and owned his car, too. If you can't be bothered to get a screwdriver out of the garage, did you really get every oil change perfectly on time, spend a bit more for the right tires and address all the problems recommended by your mechanic? Covering up the license plate with your thumb is all the "pre-purchase inspection" I personally need: When I see that, I'll pass.

Then there's the other reason you shouldn't cover up your license plate with your thumb -- or, frankly, at all. As you mentioned, you can get a Carfax report from the license plate number. It's pretty well known that Carfax reports can now be obtained from a license plate number, and I'm highly suspicious of anyone who covers up their license plate in their used car advertisement for this reason. If they cover the plate but provide the VIN, that's fine -- but if they're covering the plate and not disclosing the VIN, my guess is they have something to hide. Even if they don't, it isn't a forthright seller, and I don't want anything to do with that car. And for people worried about privacy concerns, keep in mind that a) Carfax doesn't disclose any owner information aside from where the car is registered, and b) YOUR LICENSE PLATE IS VISIBLE EVERY DAY, WHEN YOU DRIVE DOWN THE STREET!

And so, Filbert, I strongly believe you shouldn't cover the plate in your ad. If you do, the least you can do is provide the VIN. But more importantly, I very strongly believe you shouldn't use your thumb to do anything related to selling your car, except for pressing the space bar when you write the ad copy.

Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Should I Stick My Thumb Over the License Plate When I'm Selling My Car Online? - Autotrader