Investigations

Paper license plates get security redesign amid fraud increase

AUSTIN (KXAN) - Criminals looking to use fake paper license plates to skirt vehicle inspections or drive around off-the-radar now have one more obstacle in their way as the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles starts issuing a new design aimed at being more difficult to copy.

Still, some law enforcement agencies are skeptical the changes will improve the growing number of fictitious license plate cases they're investigating. And it’ll be months before they know for sure how effective the new measures are since both the new and old license plate designs will be on the road for about 60 days.

The DMV’s eTAG system, used to produce dealer and buyer paper tags, is improving some tags so they are more difficult to copy and feature a "security star," said Jeremiah Kuntz, director of the DMV’s Vehicle Titles and Registration Division.

“We've got all of our new tags that actually have security threads in them,” he said. “We also have a symbol in the top, right corner to prevent somebody from just making duplicate photocopies of the same tag.”

The new system went into effect on Monday, but both new and older designs may be seen on the road for the next 60 days since tags issued before then may not be expired yet.

“It’s to be seen over the next 60 days to 90 days, what the criminal element’s gonna do about these tags,” said Sgt. Joe Escribano, with Travis County Constable’s Precinct 3. “I’m very, very curious.”

Even with the new security measures, Escribano said there’s a need to educate law enforcement agencies about what to look for when they're on patrol.

“With these counter-measures, it’s gonna be a little more difficult,” Escribano said. “It’s gonna give law enforcement a little bit more to look at. However, a lot of law enforcement officers still at this stage, really don’t know what they’re looking at because they haven’t really been trained in that.”

He’s already started to train other law enforcement agencies, like the Manor Police Department, who he said is now noticing an increase in fake plates.

“Over the last, let’s say two weeks, we’ve had almost like close to 15 cases, just one after the other that they’ve stopped,” Escribano said. 

His agency has also seen an increase in caseload when it comes to investigating fake license plates.

“We’re almost at where we were last year for a total already this year and we’re just sitting in April,” he said.

Currently, the new changes only apply to dealer tags, not tags obtained by individual drives, including 30-day permits, 144-hour permits, 72-hour permits and one-trip tags, which is causing some law enforcement officials to worry that fraud will continue despite the change.

Kuntz said they’re planning to add the same security features to those four tag types in June.

Even with the changes, Kuntz said the strongest security feature on paper license plates is the unique alphanumeric number, which officers can run through their database if they pull an individual over.

The number gives officers the ability to determine all the same information they would by running numbers on metal license plates, as well as who purchased the vehicle and the dealer who sold it to them.

“If law enforcement runs them and they don’t get a current vehicle in the system, then it’s gonna tell them, hey this tag is not associated with a vehicle in the system. It’s not valid, and therefore, you’ve got somebody that’s got a fraudulent tag,” Kuntz said.

He said the DMV's IT team also revamped the web dealer system so it will allow car dealers to link a buyer’s tag with title transactions to simplify the process.

"It provides a lot of validations and security features in that system that we did not have before,” Kuntz said.

For more information about vehicle registration or to check a car title before making a purchase, go to the Texas DMV's website.

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