Plenty of scams on the Internet prey on innocent people, but here's one where many of the victims seem to deserve what they get: international driver's licenses.
The Net is full of come-ons aimed at people who have had their licenses revoked because of violations or other problems and think a so-called international driver's license is a valid alternative.
"Need a new driver's license? Too many points or other trouble? Want a license that can never be suspended or revoked?" reads one Internet solicitation that I recently received via e-mail at The Times.
"Avoid tickets, fines and mandatory driver's education," it continued. "Protect your privacy and hide your identity."
Of course, the international driver's license sold at this site and others--for anywhere from $30 to $300--will do much of what the solicitation claimed. The license can't be suspended or revoked, because it isn't legal in the first place. It is not a valid license that California law enforcement will accept.
"It definitely is a scam," said Steve Spring, a spokesman for the Automobile Club of Southern California. "Pretty much all of them are. Anybody trying to buy them for use in the United States is going to find it doesn't work."
"It is very often done by people who have suspended driver's licenses here," acknowledged Officer Wendy Moore of the California Highway Patrol in Sacramento.
The pool of potential customers for such licenses is huge. At any give time, about 1 million California drivers have suspended or revoked licenses because of driving infractions, failure to renew on time, drug violations and other felonies, the Department of Motor Vehicles reports. They are among the most unskilled, hostile and dangerous drivers on the road.
Such people shell out big bucks for international licenses, supposing that having one will allow them to masquerade as foreigners just visiting the state. But the licenses are close to worthless.
The California Vehicle Code says nothing on the subject, though it does note that foreign visitors driving on public roads must be older than 18 and hold either a valid foreign driver's license or a diplomatic license issued by the U.S. State Department.
Foreign licenses are problematic, because police often have difficulty judging their authenticity. Moore said the CHP will typically question a motorist about his or her length of stay in the state, run a check on the vehicle's registration and use other means to determine whether the driver is in reality a Californian with a suspended license.
The process is far from foolproof, however, and CHP and DMV officials give somewhat conflicting statements about official state policy.
DMV spokesman Bill Branch said the international licenses are valid as a form of translation for motorists with foreign licenses issued in a language other than English. But exactly how an international license obtained on the Internet is supposed to show that a document from Afghanistan is valid, for example, is anybody's guess.
Under California law, motorists do not have to speak English. What happens when the CHP stops a motorist who doesn't speak English and offers a frayed license from a foreign country in a language that doesn't even use the Roman alphabet?
"Then we are in some trouble," Moore said.
At least everyone seems to agree that, by itself, an international driver's license issued by a commercial firm provides no legal basis for anybody to operate a motor vehicle.
Moreover, these Internet licenses appear to have no validity abroad either, Spring said.
The Auto Club is among three organizations that issue international driver's licenses to U.S. residents for use in foreign countries. The others are the American Automobile Touring Alliance and the American Assn. of Motor Vehicle Administrators.
The organizations offer licenses that are valid in many countries, including Cuba, Bulgaria and Denmark, for example. On the other hand, Brazil, Russia and Cambodia will not accept even these licenses.
But at only $10, they're a bargain compared to what's being offered on the Internet.
Ralph Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Please do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St.,
Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.