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The NC DMV let people renew their license online, then took it back

Raleigh News and Observer
Some people who thought they were avoiding a trip to a Division of Motor Vehicles office by renewing their driver license online last month learned later that their renewal didn’t count.

A computer glitch accidentally allowed about 2,150 people across the state to get a license online when by law they needed to visit a DMV office in person. Many of them are now finding that the earliest appointments they can make come after their license expires.

North Carolina drivers who renew a license online must go to a DMV office the next time they renew to get a fresh photo. The computer glitch opened a window for people who should have been told they needed to visit an office and instead were allowed to renew online a second consecutive time.

The problem occurred over a four-day period, from 6:45 p.m. on Feb. 15 through 5:45 p.m. on Feb. 19, said spokesman Marty Homan. It happened as the DMV was doing some programming and testing before it turned on the first of its new computer kiosks in grocery stores on Feb. 23, Homan said.

Homan said DMV staff caught the problem during a routine review on Feb. 19, and it was fixed that evening. Those affected were notified by email that their renewal payment had been refunded and that they needed to visit a DMV office to “complete your renewal.”

That message was less than clear, said Megan Heathcote of Moore County. Heathcote had renewed her license on the DMV website on Feb. 17.

“I just went online and did it, because I thought that’s what you do,” she said in an interview. “Checked it off my mental list. Didn’t even think about it.”

Then on March 1, Heathcote says she got the email from the DMV saying that her payment had been refunded. The email referred to a “system error,” but didn’t elaborate.

“It didn’t say, sorry there was a glitch in our system, you shouldn’t have been able to do it online,” she said.

The email also didn’t include a phone number to call with questions. Homan said it should have had one: 919-861-3555.

We ‘thought we did everything right’

During her first call to the agency, Heathcote said she was told not to worry, that her license was in the mail. When it didn’t arrive, she called again this week and was transferred to someone who told her that the license was, in fact, not in the mail and that because she had renewed online in 2016 she needed to visit a DMV office this time.

By then, her license had expired. The earliest available appointment at her local office was June 17, she said. With three young children, she really wanted to avoid standing in line during afternoon walk-in hours.

After speaking to another DMV employee Tuesday, Heathcote said she got a call from her local driver license office to see when she could come in. She went in that afternoon and was able to skip the line of about 40 people to get her license renewed.

Her persistence paid off, she said, but she worries about others affected by the glitch who might be driving around with expired licenses.

“The lack of effort to communicate from the DMV is appalling,” she said, “and the potential consequences for those of us who thought we did everything right is scary.”

Drivers who think they might have been affected by the glitch can call 919-861-3555 to check on the status of their license. Homan said the DMV also plans to send another email those affected in the next couple of days with a phone number and email address they can use to get more information.

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