Should you worry about stolen personalized license plates?

Emmet Pierce

While license plate thefts are common in the U.S., buying a plate with a special design or a personalized message for your car won't put you at greater risk for becoming a crime victim.

That's because thieves typically steal license plates to replace the plates on vehicles they have already stolen, says Roger Morris, a spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau. The goal of car thieves is to anonymously blend in with traffic, not to draw attention to themselves with specialty license plates or personalized messages, he adds.

personalized license platesAbout 725,000 cars were stolen nationally last year, but Morris says there are no statistics available for license plate thefts. "We know a lot of them are stolen."

It's common for states to sell license plates with special designs and personalized messages to raise revenue. However, the additional cost you'll pay varies by state. Each program is run differently.

For example, New Jersey license plates with sports design themes are available for a one-time $60 fee. Personalized plates, with unique messages, are available to New Jersey drivers for an additional $50 fee. These costs are in addition to standard registration fees.

In Ohio, buying personalized plates with a unique message will cost you an additional $50 annually. Ohio also sells "logo" plates to support colleges or special-interest groups. The additional annual fees for these plates can range from $10 to $85.

Kim Drummond, spokeswoman for Austin-based MyPlates.com, which markets specialty license plates for Texas, says there is no typical price nationwide. Among the states, costs can vary by as much as $100 for similar specialty plates, she adds. To find out your state's prices, you should contact your department of motor vehicles.

Who buys personalized license plates?

Some designs are based on the theme of political independence. If you feel like asserting your right to bear arms, MyPlates.com sells a Texas license plate that features a picture of a cannon and the message "come and take it," a slogan of the Texas revolution.

The company also sells plates that carry the messages of charities and nonprofit groups. If you’re a supporter of the National Breast Cancer Foundation, you can choose a pink plate with the foundation's logo to help advertise the cause.

All plates sold by the company are street legal for Texas motorists. They are manufactured by state prisoners in Huntsville, Texas. While specialty plates are common throughout the U.S., Drummond said Texas is the only state to contract with a private company to conduct its sales program.

Psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, author of "A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness," says personalized plates offer drivers a way to express themselves. It's not all that different from wearing a tattoo on your arm, she adds. "It lets you show a little bit of who you are."

Create a one-of-a-kind message

When you buy a personalized plate you can use standard numbers and letters chosen by the Department of Motor Vehicles or create your own message. One of the requirements is that no one can duplicate an existing pattern of numbers and letters. The primary purpose of license plates is to give cars unique identifications.

There’s a variety of license plate purchase packages offered in Texas. The basic fee to buy a specialty plate design with no personalized message is $55 per year. The fee gives you the right to display your license plate. If you personalize your plate by using numbers and letters to create your own message, it will cost you up to $395 per year to display it. Discounts are offered if you agree to display your license plate for more than one year, Drummond says. Texas offers discounts for motorists who pay in advance for five or 10 years at a time.   

Drummond says that Texans have bought more than 148,000 specialty plates since November 2009. That has put about $17 million in the state's general revenue fund.

At the current pace of sales, the program will earn about $28 million for the state at the end of the five-year term, she adds. Although MyPlates.com operates only in the Lone Star state, eventually it may partner with other states, she says.

Can a stolen personalized license plate raise your insurance rates?

Personalized license plates aren't cheap, but they won't to raise your auto insurance costs, even if they are stolen. Michael Barry, a spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute, says most policies have deductibles of between $500 and $1,000, so it's unlikely that the theft of a set of specialty license plates would result in an insurance claim.

Officer Mike Harris, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol, says the most important thing about license plates of any style is the ability to read them. Colors and designs are unimportant, as long as numbers and letters are clear. 

Drummond says Texas law enforcement officials have expressed no objections to MyPlate.com’s products. She noted that all designs are thoroughly examined for readability by DMV officials before they are offered for sale. "We have not really seen any opposition."

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