DMV mistake 'junks' expensive car, has huge ripple effect on Marin County man's life

SAUSALITO, Calif. (KGO) -- The DMV has been rocked with turmoil lately, with questions about motor-voter registrations, REAL ID verification -- and those long lines. Now a Marin County man reports a more obscure problem that he says had a huge ripple effect on his life.

It began when Tom Mahoney of Sausalito took over ownership of a friend's 2014 Mercedes Benz two years ago. He changed title at the DMV and the car had 25,000 miles on it. That's where the mistake happened.

RELATED: Residency requirements causing trouble for Real ID's in CA

"Somehow a clerk at the DMV checked the wrong box,'' Mahoney said.

Instead of reporting the mileage, the clerk checked a box saying there the odometer reading was "not actual."

"That means your car is, like, salvaged,'' Mahoney said. "Like it has been in a wreck and there has been major damage done."

Or it was in a flood, or stolen, or someone rolled back the odometer.

Once that box was checked, the mistake followed the car on every title report.

Mahoney only found out about the error when he tried to sell the car to a Mercedes dealer.

"And they (the dealer ) didn't want anything to do with it because it was a salvage car,'' Mahoney said.

RELATED: Insurance claim delayed after valet parking attendant damages woman's car

The CarFax report showed the car was "branded" with a false odometer reading.

He complained to the DMV which did correct the mistake with CarFax. However, that didn't clear the title.

"There's still a black mark against the car!" Mahoney said. "And that was a surprise."

Turns out the correction didn't reach the federal government. The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, (NMVTIS) a database that tracks car title histories, still branded the car as having a false odometer reading. The NMVTIS report on Mahoney's car says: "Record Found...branded... by the state of California, and "not actual odometer."

Mahoney went back to the DMV demanding it correct the mistake with that database.

However, he says, the DMV clerk had no idea what the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System is. Mahoney said a supervisor came out and told him the NMVTIS was a "private company" and the DMV has no control over what private companies list on their databases.

So he was stuck with the branded car that he couldn't sell.

"I had no recourse at all,'' Mahoney said. "The dealer didn't want it. I would have to find someone who would buy it and pay a much much lower price with that black mark on the title."

RELATED: How to choose a great auto repair shop

Mahoney said he needed to sell the car and pay off the loan so he could qualify for a home mortgage. He says the field office gave him a DMV phone number to call for solving difficult problems.

"I'd call the number and it would just ring and ring and ring,'' Mahoney said. "I tried for weeks. Not even a voicemail. There is no way for the average person to correct a mistake at the DMV. "

Mahoney contacted 7 On Your Side. We contacted the DMV and it tells us the field offices have no access to that national database. However, administrators at DMV headquarters were able to correct the mistake with NMVTIS and clear the title. Within days Mahoney was able to sell the car. "Seven on Your Side, I'm telling you, you really made a difference,'' Mahoney said. "I was so happy. It made a big difference in my life."

The DMV says it's providing field staff with access to that national database, as well as training on how to use it.

More stories about the DMV here.

Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.

Copyright © 2019 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.