Why Do People Cover License Plates in Photos?

Headlight of black car, with the license plate hidden

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While some people haven’t considered this before, others might be wondering constantly: Why do people cover license plates in photos? There are two reasons. You either want to protect your privacy or avoid incriminating yourself.

So many people do it nowadays, that it almost seems like the most logical solution if you’re posting a photo of your car. From those selling their cars to those looking to purchase, to car enthusiasts who see snapshots of cars online all day long, you’re probably familiar with people taking this approach with their car situation.

No matter your inclination, it’s always best to be sure about your safety and security when you’re posting photos or searching around. Even if you haven’t wondered about this before, checking in on the details and why some people choose to cover it up can help you feel more secure in your choices and move on.

While it might feel like the right thing to do — with the emphasis we have in our society on protecting our personal information — it might actually be a bit less necessary than you might think. Here’s a bit more about why people cover their license plates in photos, and if that’s really necessary.

A closeup of a classic car grille with the license plate just offscreen

How and Why People Cover License Plates

When people are selling a car online, especially in a public venue like Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist, the sellers often cover their license plates. The most common method is sticking their hand or finger in front of the camera to cover the license plate, but there have been other creative entries. 

For instance, a few drivers add a towel, tape or a fake plate as a cover. Some resort to blurring the actual license plate or adding a sticker in photo editing. There’s even a Batman-like license plate cover. This product lets you remotely activate a screen that hides the numbers and letter identifiers of the plate. 

The same practices are also implemented for those who like to post pictures of their car on social media. Especially for those who own expensive cars or cars they’ve put a lot of effort into, it’s understandable that they want to share their pride and joy. But consequently, sharing this personal information can spark a couple of worries.

Common Reasons People Cover License Plates

  • Vandalism: Posting the license plate makes your car much more identifiable. If someone had a bone to pick with you and they spot your automobile in public, they may just resort to taking out their frustrations on your car.
  • Theft: Thieves look at rare and coveted car models as an opportunity to make money. With your license plate, they now know that the car is associated with you. While the chances of being targeted are low, they are not zero.
  • Identity Theft: License plates are considered a key to your personal identity since you register your vehicle with a license, the car title, and other important documents. There is a possibility that strangers who would want to steal your identity would start with your vehicle registration plate.
  • Doxxing: While people may not use your license plate as a way to steal your identity, they may turn it into a jumping point to exposing who you are. People may decide to dox or publicly publish your private information with malicious intent. This can happen even if you try to maintain your anonymity online.

Is It Necessary to Hide Your License Plates?

With various troubles in mind, it makes sense to cover up any personal information that might be visible in your shot. This includes your license plate number, right? Well, not exactly. 

While this choice might seem like a good idea at first, it actually isn’t necessary. Think about it this way — if you saw a photo of a car, were able to see the license plate and wanted to find the specific car or person who owned it, would you be able to? The answer is — for the most part — no! This is actually because of the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, from all the way back in 1994. 

This act essentially makes it illegal for motor vehicle departments to disclose any personal information they’ve gathered. This means that unless you work for a police department or the DMV — and hold a specific position in one of those institutions — you can’t find so much as someone’s name based on their license plate number. 

And even if you are able to view personal information from a high position, the DPPA still limits the use of motor vehicle records. Even the release still requires explicit permission from the owner of the vehicle.

A 350 SLC with a shown license plate

Out and About

Now that we’ve established the protections in place for drivers and their personal information, the time has come to bring up an important point. Even if you are still wary of posting photos of your car and license plate on social media, there’s a time and situation when everyone around you can see your car and your license plate in plain view — whenever you’re outside and driving your car.

While, of course, people who see you driving don’t necessarily know who you are and understand your presence associated with your car, people can still see you and read your license plate number if they want to. If nothing bad has happened from that, it stands to reason your car will be okay on the internet.

Maybe, If You’re Famous…

That being said, there are some people who might feel safer if they protect as much of their information as possible. For example, it’s highly unlikely that posting a photo of your car on your private Facebook page for 500 friends will lead you to a crisis. However, if you’re genuinely a celebrity, a YouTube star or a social media personality with lots of followers, it might be in your best interest to cover up if that makes you feel most comfortable.

That being said, even popular channels like Regular Car Reviews don’t bother to cover up license plate numbers, and they’re experts on the matter with a large following. Really, it’s up to you about what makes you most comfortable.

A collection of various state license plates

But Is It Legal?

It’s important to check the law in your local area to see whether your license plate covers are legal or not. For example, in Pennsylvania, it is unlawful to obscure a registration plate with a tinted cover. This is because the state employs a toll-by-plate system and the cover can make it difficult to record the details of a license plate. People who commit this offense need to pay a fine of $100.

And remember that license plate cover that seems like it came straight out of Gotham City? Despite their popularity, these gadgets are illegal in California and other parts of the U.S. Aside from bypassing toll collection, certain variations of this gadget can also cause road distractions for drivers. For instance, when the material reflects off light and causes flashes.

The regulations can vary from state to state, banning license plate covers for their use on the roads. Putting them on for photographs should be harmless enough. However, removing them after is certainly something to keep in mind before you pull out of the garage.

Cover Up Or Leave It Be?

Really, as a regular person, you’ll likely never have to worry about your information being found or stolen through your license plate number. While you should do whatever makes you feel most comfortable, be sure to check on the regulations in your area. Try to relax a little bit, too.

Originally posted May 14, 2021 – Updated January 12, 2024

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