Chester Specht recently went online to renew his car registration. He Googled "DMV renewal" and clicked on the top listing.
"Complete your vehicle registration in 3 simple steps," the website said, leading Specht through a straightforward process.
He paid using a credit card. The registration tags arrived in the mail not long after. Easy peasy.
FOR THE RECORD:
Car registration: A column in the Feb. 7 Business section about online auto registration quoted Jessica Gonzalez, a California Department of Motor Vehicles spokeswoman, as saying that fee-charging online companies don't have access to the DMV's system. She acknowledged later that the companies have "limited access" to the DMV's system so they can process their customers' renewals.
It wasn't until Specht's wife, Phyllis, looked at the receipt weeks later that the Pasadena couple realized something was hinky.
"The DMV bill was for $148," she told me. "But the receipt was for $183.64."
And there's a good reason for that: Her husband never reached the website of the California Department of Motor Vehicles, where you can renew your vehicle registration at no extra charge.
He landed instead at the site of one of hundreds of private companies licensed by the DMV to provide the same online services but with significant fees attached.
The company, Cartagz, boasts of being "California's leading vehicle registration service," offering a "higher level of customer service and efficiency."
The question is: What is the Cartagz website offering for an extra $35 that the DMV's site doesn't offer?
And could unwary consumers be easily duped into thinking they're renewing with the DMV when they're actually dealing with Cartagz?
"I thought I was on the official website," Chester Specht, 86, said. "It came up first in my search and it looked official."
On the official DMV site, though, it clearly says that no extra fee is charged for renewing a registration online.
On the Cartagz site, you have to click on the Fees tab to learn that a $29 service fee is levied to process a renewal. In Specht's case, there also was a $4.14 convenience fee, plus a $2.50 shipping fee for his registration tags.