THE FEARLESS CONSUMER- Many a mile: DMV typo stalls car sale

A typo can have expensive consequences– just ask Beth Schrank, who saw the value of her 2000 Volvo go from $12,000 to $3,500 due to what she claims was a DMV typo on the car's title. For 10 frustrating months, she repeatedly tried to persuade the department to correct their error; she was rebuffed every time. 

Schrank's father, who lives in Florida, gave her the car in March 2005. Shortly before turning it over to her, he got the oil changed at his Volvo dealership in Jacksonville. The invoice is dated March 2, 2005, and lists the odometer reading as 35,005. When Schrank took the car to the DMV on March 26 to get a Virginia title, she claims she entered the odometer reading of 36,190 on the application. 

One year later, as part of a separation agreement, she returned to the DMV to have her husband's name removed from the title. Only then did she realize that the title listed the odometer reading as 136,190, or 100,000 miles more than what she'd stated on the application. 

Schrank claims that when she asked a DMV employee to correct the mileage on the old title before issuing a new title, the man said she needed to fax a request for a vehicle inspection to the Staunton district office. She did, but her request led only to a puzzled voice-mail message in reply, saying any inspection would be an issue for the Charlottesville office. In the process of moving with her young son to a new home, she temporarily shelved her quest for a new title.

Schrank tried again in September. She'd already been told that her application for the March 2005 title– on which she'd written 36,190 as the odometer reading– had been destroyed after being put on microfiche. She asked to see a copy, and claims it was "shaded gray and almost unreadable." The employee who showed it to her, Schrank says, "pointed to a small half a mark in front of the 36,190" and claimed it was the number 1. The employee then stated that she could not change the number to the then-current odometer reading of 51,000 without adding the statement "not actual miles." 

Schrank continued to protest, and the employee said she'd call another office and report back. When she did, however, the answer was the same: There was nothing she could do. Meanwhile, Schrank had taken the Volvo to Carmax. Although the Kelly Blue Book value ranged from $11,930 (fair condition) to $12,945 (good condition), Carmax's offer was for only $3,500 because of the mileage discrepancy between the odometer and the title, which could suggest that the odometer had been tampered with. 

In December, Schrank contacted David Toscano. His assistant, Jenny Hogan, contacted the DMV but got the same response: The title could not be changed. 

I've been aware of Shrank's dilemma since Thanksgiving– she's a friend– and in mid-January, I tackled the problem. I began by asking Schrank to get her father to search for anything that would document the odometer reading around the time he gave her the car. That's when he contacted the dealership and sent her the invoice for the oil change. 

Toscano had also asked her to look for documentation, and I'm betting that if he'd had the invoice, he would have succeeded– because when I sent a copy to Bill Foy, DMV public relations manager in Richmond, the wheels turned fast. 

Jim Gurney, manager of the Vehicle Services Division, had Schrank fax him all kinds of documents– including the all-important March 2005 invoice– and, in return, arranged for a new title with the correct mileage. 

Foy has two suggestions for consumers. First, do not leave the DMV service center until you've examined any new documents to be sure they're correct. And second, if you find a mistake after leaving, report it as soon as possible. 

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at 100 Second Street NW, Charlottesville 22902.