no-zeroWhen is a zero not a zero? Turns out, when it’s an ‘o’.

For almost 25 years, I’ve been a 9-1-1/law enforcement dispatcher. One task of many in dispatching is to check DMV, DOJ, and national databases for registration and stolen status on vehicles. These checks are usually done by the license plate number, but sometime we have to use the Vehicle Identification Number, also known as the VIN.

From day one of my training, way back in 1994, I was told there are two characters never used in VINs. The letter ‘o’, and the letter ‘i’. This is because they are generally indistinguishable from zeros and ones, especially on VIN plates located on vehicle dashboards or engines. Simple. Every time you see 0 or 1 in a VIN, they are numbers, not letters.

Until yesterday.

An officer in one of the city police departments we dispatch for had stopped a vehicle, and I could hear the channel 3 dispatcher talking to him, informing him that she could not find any registration information on the VIN he had given her. They verified the number several times, with each run through coming up the same. The number was correct, but it just wasn’t in the system. “Record not on file” was the return every time she ran the VIN.

A bit later, after she had left for a break, I was covering the channel. The city officer came up, and requested I check the VIN again, this time changing the zero to an ‘o’. I replied, without moving to run it, that “there are no ‘o’s in VINs”. The officer acknowledged me, with a bit of unstated inflection in his voice of “you’re not going to try?”

You see, I KNEW it couldn’t be a ‘o’, because as a senior dispatcher with almost 25 years experience, that’s the way it had always been. Silly me.

I decided, after telling the officer it didn’t work that way, to try replacing the zero with an ‘o’. Just for shits and giggles, you know? Guess what happened?


The damned thing returned the record! Local vehicle, local owner, current registration, the whole works.

Turns out the only thing we can figure is that someone somewhere at a DMV office did a typo when they entered that particular vehicle’s information into the DMV database. Other parts of DMV/DOJ databases will tell you that there’s an error in the VIN, but not, apparently, this part.

I had to eat crow, call the officer on the radio, and tell him that I had located the VIN record. I’m glad we found it, it allowed the officer to complete his task dealing with this vehicle and it’s occupants, but I’m a bit annoyed that it made us in dispatch look like we don’t know what we’re doing. It’ll be forgotten soon by almost everyone, but not by me.

“9-1-1, what’s your emergency? You’ve misplaced a zero? Well… you’ve called the right place, apparently! We know just what to do!”