License To Steal? Criminals Use Fake Paper Tags on Getaway Cars, NYPD Says

Investigators say the explosion of paper plates creates "ghost" cars, which make the vehicles virtually "undetectable" after fleeing a crime scene.

Thousands of fake temporary license plates are being used by criminals to literally try to get away with murder and other crimes, according to NYPD officials. Investigators said the explosion in temporary paper tags across the tri-state is making getaway cars at crime scenes difficult to track, as well as enabling drivers to evade tolls at crossings across the tri-state area. "The use of fraudulent Paper Tags has become a common recourse for criminals looking to mask their identities. Current investigations of drug-traffickers, terrorists, gang members and organized theft rings have all seen a rise in the use of these fraudulent paper tags," a statement released earlier this week by the Hudson County Prosecutor’s office stated. NYPD officials point to two recent gang-land type shootings in Brooklyn as examples of how criminals use fake paper license plates. Last month, three men were targeted in a drive-by shootings in the Flatlands section. Although the shooter’s vehicle was caught on a surveillance camera with its plate visible, because the plate was a fake, it hindered police efforts to find the shooters.  A similar case happened five days earlier along Brooklyn’s East 78th Street. A gunman in a white sedan opened fired on pedestrians and made his getaway. Video captured the car and earlier even showed him affixing the fake paper plate. But police said again, the fake plate makes tracking the car that much tougher. "One reason it helps them is it is a ghost car," said Detective Maureen Stefenelli with the NYPD’s Auto Crime Unit. “That’s what I call it – a 'ghost car.' Pretty much could be undetectable." The NYPD says it began a fake license plate crackdown in late May.  Since then they say they have made 243 arrests of people in vehicles with fake plates for a series of crimes including nine gun arrests. Some 54 were suspected gang members. In all 207 vehicles have been seized. Temporary or paper tags became easier to get during the pandemic where many Department of Motor Vehicle offices were closed. So temporary paper tags were made available for legitimate purposed like for people who needed to register their cars. But criminals saw an opportunity to order tags using fake information, or even just copying plates and affixing them to cars. "They would put illegitimate information or not real information so it would not be traced back to them," Detective Stefenelli said. In Southeast Queens, NBC New York saw dozens and dozens of paper tags on cars, many of them from Texas, numerous of them expired. Texas is one state that officials said made it simple during the pandemic for people to obtain a registration online for a fee, few questions asked. "You don’t need a middleman," said veteran NYPD detective Thomas Burke. "You could just go to Texas DMV and say, 'Hey listen, this is my vin number – can I get a temporary?" A recent federal criminal investigation in Houston accused three people of creating four fictitious car dealerships in order to sell temporary tags. In all, more than a half-million paper license plates were allegedly sold. The feds said many buyers had New York addresses. The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles tells NBC 4 News, its working with state legislators and law enforcement to stop the improper use of temporary tags. Earlier this year, House Bill 3927 was passed, and includes a recommendation from the TxDMV Board to allow rule-making authority to set the maximum number of temporary tags licensed dealers can issue. "Out on the street, these are (selling) up to $200, $300. Just look at the profit margin on this," Burke said. Investigators said fraudsters are making photocopies of a single legitimate plate and the fakes can be found for sale on social media. Officials said buyers are people who can’t get a registration, don’t want to pay for insurance or pay for tolls. One legitimate Honda Fit owner had her temporary tag copied and soon was receiving thousands in tolls and fines from others using her copied tag, including a Dodge Durango which racked up $4,000 in tolls and fines alone. "In a lot of states there is this shift to cashless tolling. People are trying to bypass that. And they are bypassing that by using these plates that cannot be linked back," said Owen McShane of the New York State DMV. The Port Authority loses millions in tolls as a result of fake license plate scams. In one example, 28-year-old Eric Haye, of Roselle, New Jersey, was arrested for allegedly selling paper tags to motorists looking to beat the system. He’s scheduled to make his first court appearance on forgery charges, on August 18th. As a result, on July 29, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey sent a letter to social media companies like eBay and Craigslist asking them to take action to try to help stop the sale of fake tags on their respective sites. "The online offering of fake license tags described above appears to violate your platforms' terms of service. And the use of your platforms to facilitate the referenced criminal activity imposes substantial burdens on the public," wrote Michael Farbiarz, the Port Authority’s general counsel. NYPD officials said their patrol cars armed with license plate readers often can't determine if a paper tag on a parked car is legitimate or fake. And it is time consuming for a traffic agent or police officer to research a single paper tag. Officials point to a New Jersey tag was photocopied and then used illegally on numerous other cars. Police said to date, the fakes associated with that one license plate number are connected to 35 arrests, 113 summonses, 48 different complaints and 11 9-1-1 calls. The NYPD said it is training officers how to better spot fake plates. And any car with a temporary tag with any violation is automatically towed, not just ticketed, so the owner has the burden of proving the car and tag are legitimate in order to get the car released from the pound. As of July 1st, NYPD has towed 3,892 vehicles with paper plates. And almost a quarter of them, 797, were never picked up by the vehicle owner. Near the World Trade Center site, numerous cars were parked on side streets with temporary tags, with law enforcement always worried about ongoing terror threats. “The question you have to ask yourself is — why do they have a temporary plate? What are they hiding?” the NYPD’s Stefanelli said. She added that too often fake paper tags are becoming a new weapon for criminals who increasingly use these plates as a license to steal.