Joseph Tartaro never meant to cause this much trouble. Especially for himself.
In late 2016, Tartaro decided to get a vanity license plate. A security researcher by trade, he ticked down possibilities that related to his work: SEGFAULT, maybe, or something to do with vulnerabilities. Sifting through his options, he started typing â€œnull pointer,â€� but caught himself after the first word. NULL. Funny. â€œThe idea was Iâ€™d get VOID for my wifeâ€™s car, so our driveway would be NULL and VOID,â€� Tartaro says.
The joke had layers, though. As Tartaro well knew, and as he explained in a recent talk at the Defcon hacker conference, â€œnullâ€� is also a text string that in many programming languages signifies a value that is empty or undefined. To many computers, null is the void.
That set-up also has a brutal punchlineâ€”one that left Tartaro at one point facing $12,049 of traffic fines wrongly sent his way. Heâ€™s still not sure if heâ€™ll be able to reregister his car this year without paying someone else’s tickets. And thanks to the Kafkaesque loop heâ€™s caught in, itâ€™s not clear if the citations will ever stop coming.
In his Defcon talk, Tartaro played up the idea that he had initially hoped a NULL plate might get him out of ticketsâ€”that, once fed into the database of offenders, the violation quite literally would not compute. But he says now that pranks werenâ€™t actually his initial focus. If anything, he was surprised that the California DMV website let him register NULL in the first place.
That first year as a NULL driver was uneventful. But when it came time to register again in 2017, the DMV website no longer accepted NULL as an option. â€œIt broke the website,â€� Tartaro says. Specifically, the site told him that the license plate and Vehicle Identification Number he had entered were invalid. But Tartaro was still able to use a reference number to renew. He didnâ€™t think much more of it.
He also didnâ€™t think much of the ticket he got in early 2018, for not having the appropriate registration sticker on his license plate. Tartaro suspects someone scraped it off to use on their own car. He thought about fighting it, but the fine was only $35, so he decided to just pay it and move on with his life.
Then came the citations. Dozens of them, deposited in bulk to his mailbox. Parking violations, stand-stop violations, fines of $37, $60, $74, $80, from Fresno to Rancho Cucamonga. â€œIâ€™ve never been to Fresno,â€� Tartaro says.
Nor had Tartaro gone on a statewide, parking-related crime spree. Instead, by paying that $35 ticket, it appears that a database somewhere now associated NULL with his personal information. Which means that any time a traffic cop forgot to fill in the license plate number on a citation, the fine automatically got sent to Joseph Tartaro.
The tickets were for Hondas, Toyotas, Mercedes. (Tartaro drives an Infinity.) At one point, Tartaro says, he received two tickets written at Cyprus College within hours of each otherâ€”for two different vehicles. He would have had to swap the registration during his lunch break. Worse yet, the incoming citations seemed to apply retroactively.
â€œI have tickets from 2014,â€� Tartaro says. â€œI didnâ€™t have the plate back then.â€�
Citations ‘R’ Us
The fines were all sent by a private company called the Citation Processing Center, which, well, processes parking citations. But calling them, Tartaro says, proved fruitless.
â€œI reached out to this company, and theyâ€™re basically saying that I have to prove without a doubt that these hundreds of tickets arenâ€™t mine. Trying to speak to a manager went nowhere,â€� says Tartaro. â€œHeâ€™s like, youâ€™ve got to mail all these back to us.â€�
Tartaro declined, worried about potentially losing the paper record of the misallocated fines. But the next day, he says, he noticed something odd in the public online listing of citations maintained at the Citation Processing Centerâ€™s website. He had given them an example of a specific ticket he had gotten that implicated a Honda. Online, that record had been changed to an Infinity with Tarantoâ€™s VIN. Taranto shared a side by side comparison of his paper copy and the apparently altered database version as part of his Defcon talk.
â€œAfter I had the phone call, directly after the phone call, those same tickets where I still have the physical printouts in front of me right now that say their make and model were modified,â€� Tartaro says. A Citation Processing Center employee said that while she was aware of Tartaroâ€™s situation, the company was unable to comment.
Tartaro next turned to the DMV, which he says worked with the Citation Processing Center to void out the bulk of tickets that had errantly come his way. That successfully got the amount owed down to $6,262 as of last weekend, but didnâ€™t solve the core problem. More tickets continued to trickle in. The database still had him pegged.
Even through all this, Tartaro remained mostly unconcerned. The CPC was just a private company; he could keep working with the DMV to void the fines as they came in, which was an annoyance but not a catastrophe. He had successfully registered his car the previous year despite CPC citations piling up. But just days before his Defcon talk, Tartaro says, he received a notice that the California DMV would not let him renew his registration this time unless he actually paid some of those fines.
â€œNow that the DMV is enforcing these tickets that are falsified, it changes everything,â€� he says. â€œAt the moment, I cannot reregister my vehicle without paying the tickets. But I canâ€™t pay the tickets because it admits guilt, and the minute I admit that it opens me up to all the other tickets. Iâ€™m basically in a really bad situation.â€�
The situation has improved somewhat in recent days, at least. Tartaro says that tickets assigned to his car still tallied over $6,000 when he last checked on Sunday. When WIRED looked up the NULL plate in the CPC database Tuesday, after asking the company about the charges, it showed only $140 worth of tickets remaining. Both from Fresno.
Infinity and Beyond
Tartaro doesnâ€™t see this as much of a reprieve. Heâ€™s glad the tickets have vanished, but he would still need to pay $140 to reregister his car. And thereâ€™s no guarantee that more fines wonâ€™t show up along the way.
Itâ€™s also hard to know where to turn for resolution. â€œMr. Tartaroâ€™s situation appears to stem from policies set by local parking authoritiesâ€”which the DMV has no control over,â€� California DMV spokesperson Marty Geenstein said. â€œFrom the DMVâ€™s perspective, our system recognizes his personalized plate and shows he is eligible to renew his registration online.â€� Assuming he pays the fee.
Prank or not, Tartaro was playing with fire by going with NULL in the first place. â€œHe had it coming,â€� says Christopher Null, a journalist who has written previously for WIRED about the challenges his last name presents. â€œAll you ever get is errors and crashes and headaches.â€�
If anything, Null says, the problem has gotten worse over the years. â€œThe â€˜minimum viable productâ€™ concept has pushed a lot of bad code through that doesnâ€™t go through with the proper level of testing,â€� Null says, and adds that anyone affected is inevitably an edge case, a relatively small problem not worth devoting a lot of resources to fix. Null has himself had to deal with countless annoyances, from American Express dropping his last name altogether, to Bank of America refusing to accept emails from his “nullmedia.com” domain.
Still, Taranto says heâ€™s determined to keep his problematic license plate, and not just as a point of pride. â€œI still have tickets associated with me. The moment I change my plate I just know itâ€™s going to be even more convoluted, and more confusing,â€� he says. â€œI didnâ€™t feel comfortable changing it until I knew it was actually solved.â€�
More Great WIRED Stories