The D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles is investigating a complaint that a money order a motorist mailed to the agency to renew a car registration was stolen and used to pay a cellular telephone bill.
Lisa Richardson, 35, said she mailed a $115 money order to DMV on May 2 to renew the registration for her 1984 Chevy Caprice Classic. She used an envelope issued by the agency, but when she called to inquire about her registration, she said, the agency said the payment had not been received.
Using her receipt, Richardson contacted the issuer of the money order, Travelers Express, and paid $12 to get a photocopy of it. Richardson said she discovered that someone had used a black magic marker to write over "DMV."
"Somebody . . . wrote over my handwriting," she said. "They wrote it out to Cingular Wireless."
The photocopy of the money order is difficult to read but appears to be directed to the wireless carrier. The account number and address of the payee are illegible, but the number on the money order matches Richardson's receipt.
Janis D. Hazel, a spokeswoman for DMV, said car registration renewals are mailed to a post office lockbox and retrieved by Wachovia Bank for DMV. She said DMV employees receive only the DMV forms. She said she is not aware of other complaints about altered money orders.
The agency's Office of Service Integrity, which was created last year to investigate fraud, waste and mismanagement, will examine Richardson's complaint, Hazel said.
"We have no record of the money order coming to us," Hazel said. "We don't have it in our system. Without proof that it was mailed to us, it seems like the investigation would start at the post office and then go to the source of the payment because there's nothing that tracks it to DMV at this point."
Amy H. Jones, a spokeswoman for Wachovia, called it "a rare and unusual" situation. "We can't confirm that we've ever received the money order. Now that this has been brought to our attention, we will look into the matter," she said.
Richardson said she mailed two money orders to DMV on May 2. The other money order, $60 to cover a parking ticket, was cashed a few days later and had not been altered.
To renew her registration, which had expired, Richardson said she paid $115 in cash.
"I just want my money back," Richardson said. "I want to know how many other people have been victimized."
Richardson, who works as an administrative assistant for Metro and is a full-time student at the University of the District of Columbia, said she decided to discuss the incident because of past problems at DMV.
Since 2003, several DMV employees have pleaded guilty to accepting bribes to fix tickets and to selling fraudulent driver's licenses. Richardson said she also filed a complaint with the police.
"I feel bad that it's negative news on DMV's part, but this needs to be known," said Richardson, a divorced mother of two. "I'm not going to take this lightly. I have to work every day to feed my kids and pay my bills like the next person. It's hard out here."
Cathy Rebuffoni, a spokeswoman for MoneyGram International Inc., which owns Travelers Express, said she hopes to track down the original money order.
"Generally speaking, we don't see a lot of that type of fraud," Rebuffoni said. "It does happen."
Rebuffoni added that she is surprised that the money order didn't raise questions when it reached the payee.
"It is very unusual for something to be altered like that and also for it to be accepted," she said. "If it's not clear that it's been altered, that's the only reason I can imagine someone would accept it. It must have looked like it was okay."
Alexa Kaufman, a spokeswoman for Cingular Wireless, said the company has systems in place to help detect fraud and will cooperate with D.C. authorities.
"I've never heard of an instance like that before," Kaufman said. "It's very disturbing. Obviously, we want to make sure we have credibility in our payment process."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt and staff writer Cheryl W. Thompson contributed to this report.