The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles is warning there are misleading websites that lure customers into paying a fee to access its online services.
The DHSMV, which does not charge customers any fee to access the sites www.GoRenew.com or www.flhsmv.gov, is not affiliated with the scheming websites, but it says that the websites look very similar.
“They provide small disclaimers that state they are not affiliated with the department and then proceed to charge customers anywhere from $25 to $50," said the DHSMV's executive director, Julie Jones.
Owners of the misleading websites pay search engines to have their website link listed on the top of the webpage. Users that enter the site are asked for their name, contact and credit card information. Then they are charged just to get to the DHSMV’s site.
“The department wants to arm our customers with information about these illusive websites so they are not duped into paying unnecessary fees of any kind,” Jones added. “The websites are legal, but unethical.”
Barry Thurman of Orlando was duped when he went online to renew his driver's license. He, like many others that don't want to spend the day at a state license bureau, simply went online to renew his license. He went on a search engine, like Google or Yahoo!, and typed in what he thought would lead him to the state's legitimate website, he said.
"They identified themselves as the official page to renew your driver's license," Thurman said. "They asked me all the information about my mother's maiden name, my date of birth, Social Security number."
When Thurman checked his financial statement and saw a $40 charge from the website, plus the state's legitimate charge, he called the website.
"Got a young lady working there, it was her first day working there," he said. "She said that all day she had been getting calls from people who had their money ripped off from them."
After some investigation, Thurman found that the call center was in the Phillipines, and the owner was located in the United Kingdom. Thurman then tipped off investigators.
"It could happen to anybody," said Florida HIghway Patrol spokesman Sgt. Tom Pikul.
Officials are appalled that any entity would come up with such a scheme.
“To say the websites are misleading is an understatement,” said Jones. "It is an unbelievable racket.”
The state has no way of knowing how many drivers have fallen prey to these schemes, but estimate that many could have, considering the number of people that renew online. Identity theft could be a concern too.
"We are upset about this, however, it's not illegal," Pikul said. "They are putting a disclaimer at the bottom of the page."