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SPRINGFIELD - Lewd, rude, nasty, crude and sometimes just plain weird. Candace Wanzo has just about seen it all on requests for personalized and vanity license plates.

Wanzo's staff of about 15 workers in the secretary of state's office decides what combinations of letters and numbers make it onto tens of thousands of special-request Illinois license plates every year.

Three out of every four requests are approved, and the vast majority of those rejected are turned away because the requested combinations have already been claimed by someone else.

But that still leaves hundreds deemed not suitable for bumpers, and judging those is much more involved than it might seem.

Sometimes there are misunderstandings, where drivers unwittingly submit a request that has a seedy meaning. Others are trying to push buttons, with references to drugs, religion or politics.

And then there's the vulgar crowd, covering just about every variation of any dirty word you can imagine. Thanks to a computerized list, though, screening out the naughty from the nice is easy - not that a rejection always stops people from giving it another try.

"They'll keep trying the request hoping that a different operator will get it and possibly there would be a chance that the plate would go through," Wanzo said. "But with having them tagged on the system, there's little chance of that happening."

More than 3,400 words are automatically banned, ranging from the downright vulgar to more sneaky attempts. Any variations on those are tossed, including numbers attached to the end.

For questionable ones not on the list, there are three levels of scrutiny: Wanzo's staff, Wanzo and then Ernie Dannenberger, director of the SOS's vehicle services department.

The decision is final if plates are rejected at any of those levels, Wanzo said.

Personalized and vanity plates have been part of the driving culture in Illinois for about 25 years.

Of the roughly 8.5 million passenger vehicles and trucks on Illinois roadways, more than 1.2 million have personalized and vanity plates, or nearly 15 percent.

The state has processed more than 73,000 requests this year and approved more than 56,000, although that's down significantly in the last couple of years as higher fees have pushed the cost of a special plate to nearly $100 a year. A regular standard issue plate costs $78.

People rarely protest when their plates are rejected, but some are persistent.

That's why the staff reviews them backward and even uses slang or foreign language dictionaries to catch abuses.

When the office gets a complaint from an offended traveler - including Secretary of State Jesse White from time to time - drivers are sent a letter offering them a chance to explain their plate and get a similar one at no extra cost, Wanzo said.

In one case, a woman complained her neighbor had EVIL on his plate.

The plate stayed, along with others that have similar variations.

In another, a man expressed his disdain for the rock band U2. But because Illinois forbids letters being mixed with and put next to numbers, the plate IHATEU 2 could be read another way.

"He's gone through this a couple times," Wanzo said. "We let him keep the plate. He's not trying to tell the person behind them he hates them."

But other plates that have made the roadways, including variations on phrases containing four-letter words, have been called back after driver complaints.

License plate collectors say Illinois is in the middle of the pack on regulating personalized plates.

"There actually is zero standardization with regard to what is accepted and what is not," said Michael Wiener, co-founder of the License Plate Information Center and a former state senator in New Mexico. "It's done reactively rather than proactively."

Wiener says some other states are more conservative, such as Vermont, where all religious-oriented plates are rejected. Some are more liberal, such as Mississippi, where just about anything goes, he says.

Personalized plates are big business in Virginia, which has an extensive policy and even a committee to review questionable requests. With 60,000 requests a month, there's plenty to stay on top of, said Pam Goheen, spokeswoman for the state's motor vehicle department.

"The vast majority of the requests we receive are legitimate and fun," Goheen said.

Mike Naughton, former mayor of Manhattan, and president of the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association, says Illinois is responsible in how it approves requests.

"The vast majority of people want to get something that means something to them," Naughton said. "Some people have too much time on their hands. … As programs have evolved, people have gotten smarter, but the programs have gotten smarter, too."

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