116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Home / News / Government & Politics / State Government
Scammers try to take advantage of extended time for renewing driver’s licenses
Among the steps Iowa state government took to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus last year was allowing Iowans more time to renew their driver’s licenses.
After Gov. Kim Reynolds issued her COVID-19 emergency proclamations, the state Department of Transportation did not allow walk-in traffic at its service centers. It offered customers the opportunity to request a six-month extension of an expiring license, which provide more time to schedule an appointment.
While making the renewal process safer for driver’s license holders and Iowa DOT staff, it also opened a window for scammers trying to steal identities.
Fraudsters sent text messages or emails falsely warning that the target’s license needed to be updated, was missing information or was expiring. If the recipient clicked a link in the message, it typically opened a spreadsheet requesting personal information, including the person’s date of birth and Social Security number.
In typical phishing, scammers email malicious links or attachments and people unwittingly click them. When the scammers operate through texting, the method is called “SMS phishing” or “smishing.”
Earlier this summer, the Iowa DOT heard from county treasurers and a few driver’s license holders that they had received text messages regarding their driving records.
“Immediately, we held a meeting with DOT leadership to discuss the situation,” said Darcy Doty, customer service director in the department’s Motor Vehicle Division. It issued a scam alert in mid-July warning Iowans the messages were misleading and not coming from the Iowa DOT.
“The only time the Iowa DOT will send you a text message related to your driver’s license is to confirm an appointment you have scheduled with us and it will not contains links,” the state warned. The agency never text messages customers about their driving records.
The Iowa DOT doesn’t know how many of the more than 2.5 million Iowans who hold driver’s licenses received those phishing attempts, Doty said, but fortunately, “We have not received any reports from anyone falling victim to this scam.”
Iowa wasn’t the only state targeted. In recent months, Minnesota, Ohio, Vermont and Wyoming reported similar scams. In addition to supposedly coming from transportation departments, some texts and emails supposedly came from secretary of state offices.
With states extending the grace period for people to renew their driver’s license, it was a “perfect scam storm,” Alex Hamerstone, risk management director at TrustedSec, a cybersecurity consulting company, told the Associated Press. Scammers prey on the sense of urgency people feel about keeping their driver’s licenses current and sending email and text “reminder” plays into that.
Alerted by state officials, the FBI and IRS have been working with Google to take down the sham webpages. So far, the agencies have identified more than 1,000 sites and Google has shut down a similar number.
However, that doesn’t prevent the same bad actors from opening new Google accounts, creating forms and using software to continue to phish, cybersecurity experts say.
Phishing attempts typically include a number of red flags, they say. Asking for a person’s Social Security number should trigger an alarm because even credit card companies ask only for the last four digits.
Based on its research, the Iowa DOT knows there are a certain number of customers who choose not to renew their licenses for one reason or another.
“Historically, that number has been approximately 12,500 at any given time,” Doty said. “We’ve kept a close eye on how many licenses expired between Jan. 16, 2020, through the end of the proclamation and that number stands at 14,547 as of mid-August.”
During that time, the department sent postcards to customers whose licenses expired explaining the process for scheduling an appointment.
“Recognizing customers needed to renew, our staff completed overtime late last summer to ease the backlog and provide more access to appointments for customers,” Doty said.
Customers who have a license that has been expired for more than one year will be required to pass the knowledge and driving test before obtaining a valid license, she said.
Comments: (319) 398-8375; firstname.lastname@example.org
The Associated Press contributed to this report.