Houston – There’s no doubt you’ve noticed the increasing number of temporary paper license plates on the roadways these days. Law enforcement officers say the plates are contributing to unsolved violent crimes and costing law-abiding citizens money. KPRC 2 investigator Amy Davis has learned the people fraudulently selling the plates are taking advantage of lax oversight by the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Who is selling the temporary Texas tags?
New and used car dealers in Texas have access to the DMV’s web portal to print temporary license plates. Dealers are only supposed to issue paper plates for vehicles that they sell so customers have a temporary license plate until they can get the permanent plate and get the vehicle registered. Temporary plates expire in 60 days.
Car dealers must apply for a dealer’s license with the DMV in order to get access to issue the paper plates; but Sgt. Jose Escribano of Travis County Constable’s Precinct 3 says the DMV is issuing dealer licenses to businesses only selling the temporary plates, not vehicles.
KPRC 2 Investigates found temporary Texas tags for sale on Facebook. Ads claim you can get them in minutes. One seller told us via Messenger that he would email them to us after we paid him $45 by Zelle.
“The system is allowing them to work within the Texas DMV system,” explained Escribano, “which to me, is obscene.”
Temporary tag fraud crackdown
Escribano has worked in Austin for years, cracking down on the temporary tag fraud, and assisting the FBI in a sting that led to the indictment of three people. Federal court documents show the group worked together to create four fictitious used car dealerships for the sole purpose of buying and printing some 580,000 paper tags they sold all over the country.
The investigations take months to track down the fraudulent sellers because Escribano says they apply for the dealer licenses using stolen and fake IDs, claiming their dealer lots are at addresses later confirmed to be vacant. Escribano said in the past when he or any other officer sent proof that a licensed dealer was operating fraudulently, selling thousands of paper plates, the DMV would take 60 days or more to revoke the company’s license, allowing them to print thousands of more temporary tags every day.
“If I have to be blunt, I’m really fed up with it,” said Escribano. “If you have the means to shut it off, you need to shut it off yesterday.”
Can you spot the fake?
The Impact of Bogus Texas Tags
Harris County Sheriff’s Deputy Melody Waits says the paper plates put her and other patrol officers in danger every time they make a traffic stop.
“You never know who you’re pulling over at that point because you can have four-time felons in the car committing crimes with a temporary tag,” Waits explained to Davis.
Waits explained often times the VIN printed on the paper plate does not match the vehicle identification number on the vehicle. The car may have been reported stolen, but Waits wouldn’t know that because the information on the temporary tag is inaccurate.
When she stops a vehicle with fraudulent tags, she takes a picture of the plate for the police report as evidence. Another Harris County deputy confiscates the fake plates. In just 2 weeks, that one deputy collected 178 paper tags.
Some of the most violent crimes committed were by criminals who had paper plates on the get-away vehicles.
- When a Nassau Bay Police Seargent was hit and killed during a traffic stop in December 2019, the suspect raced away in a vehicle with temporary tags.
- The suspects who shot and killed a 17-year-old attending an Astros game with his family in a road rage incident were in a vehicle with paper tags.
- The get-away car for the 2 suspects who shot and killed a New Orleans off-duty police officer eating dinner at a Galleria-area restaurant had temporary paper plates.
The problem isn’t just confounding Texas law enforcement. Officers in other states are also seeing a scourge of Texas temporary plates on their roadways. New York City police noticed the influx of Texas paper plates involved in crimes in the state back in 2019.
On October 31st, when a well-known convicted drug kingpin was shot and killed in Harlem, police say the pick-up truck he was driving had Texas paper plates on it.
“It is embarrassing for the state of Texas,” Escribano said.
Why would someone use fake paper tags on their vehicle?
Not all drivers of vehicles with temporary tags are violent felons. Some are avoiding inspections on vehicles that wouldn’t otherwise pass. Drivers can also avoid buying auto insurance and fly through toll booths without paying.
And there’s no need to stop and pay tolls. The Harris County Toll Road Authority told KPRC 2 investigates from January 1, 2021 through November 4, 2021, 349,953 vehicles with untraceable paper plates have passed through toll booths without paying.
“I’m mad about it,” admitted Waits. “I don’t see why you wouldn’t be mad about this because it’s gonna be you that gets hit by somebody that doesn’t have their stuff together.”
What is the DMV doing to stop it?
Texas lawmakers passed HB3927 to help crackdown on the fraudulent sale of paper tags. The new law took effect on September 1, 2021. It gives the DMV authority to change its rules to address the issue. DMV is in the process of doing that, but the process is slow. When we requested an interview with someone at the DMV, a spokesperson sent this statement:
“We are not able to participate in interviews because we do not want to compromise the integrity of ongoing criminal investigations. Additionally, we do not want to get ahead of the rulemaking process for the implementation of House Bill 3927, which passed during the 87th Legislative Session.”
At its October 29th board meeting, the DMV board discussed a plan to limit the number of temporary tags each dealer could issue. The number of tags allowed would be based on a formula that would take into consideration the number of years the dealer has been licensed by the state and how many vehicles the dealer has sold in prior years, among other factors. Using the proposed formula, the smallest and newest dealers would only be allowed 900 temporary tags a year. Escribano said nothing about the plan would stop bogus dealers from issuing 900 tags, then getting another license and printing 900 more, and repeating the process over and over.
At the public board meeting, Escribano asked the DMV board to consider requiring fingerprints from all dealer applicants. Fingerprinting would make it more difficult for fraudulent dealers to present stolen IDs. Police would be able to find the dealers if they discovered them operating fraudulently.
“Give us a fighting chance,” Escribano pleaded with the board. “And don’t make me do this with one hand behind my back. We’ve been doing this for 3 years now, and still, here we are.”
The DMV took no action on Escribano’s request. Instead, it opened up a public comment period to allow the public to let the DMV board know what they think about limiting the number of temporary plates dealers can issue. After a 30 day public comment period, the board may or may not vote on the proposal. In the meantime, Escribano said some of the fraudulent dealers are issuing thousands of paper tags every single day. Two dealers with Houston addresses alone issued 27,000 paper plates in just one week.
If you would like to make a public comment with the DMV about this issue and the rule it is proposing to limit the number of temporary plates dealers can issue, you can submit written comments by 5 p.m. CST on December 13, 2021. Send written comments or hearing requests by email to email@example.com or by mail to Office of General Counsel, Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, 4000 Jackson Avenue, Austin, Texas 78731. To read the proposed rules, go to the Texas Register; type in “Texas Department of Motor Vehicles” in the space for “agency name” and then click “find.”
HB3927 does speed up the process of revoking a dealer’s license. As of September 1, 2021, when law enforcement reports the fraudulent sale of paper tags by a dealer to the DMV, the DMV can revoke the company’s license in 10 days. The process used to take several or even up to a year.
Just this week, the DMV revoked the license of Kasniels Auto Sales. The dealer listed its business address as 3509 Lockwood Drive on its DMV license application. When Escribano drove by the address, he found the property vacant, not a single car for sale or otherwise was there. Escribano is convinced the dealer already has a new license using a new fictitious business name and address.