AUSTIN (KXAN) — An unexpected and unintended consequence of Texas’ crackdown on its paper tag problem — which has ballooned into a $200 million criminal black market — could be putting motorists at risk of fraud.

Anecdotally, some in law enforcement, like Central Texas deputy David Kohler, are seeing an increase in the theft of “hard” aluminum license plates following efforts to stop temporary tag abuse.

“Every day is different. Sometimes, we’ll have several victims in a neighborhood where their plates have been stolen,” Kohler said. “If we’re seeing an uptick in stolen license plates, it’s a possibility [it’s because] of the dent that has been done in fraudulent paper tags.”

Travis County deputies are investigating a burglary that took place on Aug. 21 near Wells Branch. The suspect’s vehicle “had metal plates, stolen from another vehicle on it,” explained Kristen Dark with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office.

This type of crime is “not new,” or specifically tracked by law enforcement, Dark said, noting thieves have been doing this “for years and years.” One tactic is to target license plates that match the make and model of a stolen vehicle.

Kohler, who fought successfully to get the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles to go after paper tag fraud, believes the state’s efforts, along with more eyes in the sky tracking license plates, are driving thieves to now steal aluminum plates.

“We have victims who call and report their license plates — either the front, or the back or sometimes both — have been stolen off their vehicle,” he said. “The primary reason [for the theft] is to conceal their criminal activity.”

It’s the same reason crooks found a way to infiltrate the TxDMV database in order to fraudulently print, and sell, real temporary tags. Recent efforts to stop that, sparked in part by a series of KXAN investigations, could have more thieves turning to what they see as an easier score: the one on your vehicle, Kohler said.

‘Just bizarre’

Kevin Breeland holds his TxTag bill for a toll charged to his old license plate (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

In February, Kevin Breeland traded in his 2018 Dodge Ram for a 2021 Honda CR-V.

“The dealer asked if we wanted to take the plates off the truck or just let them do it,” he recalled, saying he asked the Austin dealership to properly dispose of them.

Fast forward to July — five months after he thought his license plates were destroyed — he received a bill in the mail from TxTag for a toll he didn’t use, tied to a license plate he no longer owns, records show.

“I thought it was a mistake,” Breeland said. “Just bizarre that this popped up months later on another vehicle. And, how did that happen?”

Breeland said he was “just dumbfounded” when he saw the $7.15 bill. The charge, his bill shows, stems from a toll fee on May 31.

“With all of the issues regarding temporary tags I was really shocked when I got this bill in the mail,” he said. “Sure, it was only for $7, but those are plates that should have been destroyed. They shouldn’t be on another vehicle.”

That small charge, he said, could carry a potentially big problem.

Kevin Breeland stands near a toll road next to his new vehicle and new license plate (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

“No one wants to have the police knock on their door in the middle of the night because a crime occurred,” he said. “And you’re the one that the plate is registered to.”

Under state law, the dealership should have destroyed Breeland’s license plates.

When a car is traded in or sold, the dealer must destroy the plate or have them “disposed of in a manner that renders the license plates unusable or that ensures the license plates will not be available for fraudulent use on a motor vehicle,” state law requires. If the plate isn’t destroyed, it must be returned to the customer, the TxDMV said.

The Austin dealership Breeland went to says it believes his license plates were stolen off its lot. Police were not called, the owner said, citing a belief that he “sincerely doubt[ed] that they would take any action on a scenario like that.” After KXAN started asking questions, the dealership said it is retraining staff “on proper license plate disposal.”

KXAN is focusing on the larger, systemic issues of paper tag and license plate fraud, which is why we haven’t named the dealer.

Protecting yourself

TxDMV said it doesn’t know how often license plates are stolen because it doesn’t track that information. The FBI, Austin police and TxDOT also could not say.

While TxDMV does not track the number of license plate thefts, it does track how often license plates are replaced. Plates can be replaced if they are lost, damaged, stolen, or for cosmetic/readability reasons.

In 2020, records show 529,730 license plates were replaced. That number jumped to 651,278 in 2021. So far this year, 465,996 Texas license plates were replaced.

Whether the thefts are in any way new, old or simply an ongoing problem, tag fraud is taking a toll on law enforcement’s efforts to catch criminals, Kohler said.

“The car you’re behind could be a stolen vehicle,” he said, explaining if the license plate matches the type of car, it would not necessarily raise an immediate red flag. “You just don’t know.”

So, how can you protect yourself?

Experts say when selling or trading in your car, you should: make sure your plates are removed and destroyed if you don’t plan on transferring them to another vehicle; ensure any toll stickers are removed and deactivated; notify TxDMV and TxTag about the sale; and notify law enforcement immediately if your license plate is stolen.

“If the customer does not choose to transfer or keep their license plates, a dealer should deface and dispose of the license plates so they may not be used in a fraudulent manner,” said TxDMV spokesperson Adam Shaivitz, “One way TxDMV recommends to deface license plates is by drawing a large ‘X’ on the face of each place with indelible marker. After defacing the license plates, a dealer would then dispose of them by delivering the defaced plates to an aluminum recycling center.”

Breeland said TxTag waived his bill after he proved the plate didn’t belong to him. TxTag said it bills customers based on information in the TxDMV database. That’s why, Shaivitz said, it’s important for the customer and dealer to report a vehicle sale by filing a Vehicle Transfer Notification Form (VTR-346) with TxDMV in order to protect against toll charges incurred after the sale date. TxTag said customers should also contact its customer service center at (888) 468-9824 after receiving confirmation of the title transfer.

The dealership Breeland went to said customers should “demand…proof that their former vehicle is no longer in their name from a DMV standpoint.” Any dealer should easily be able to provide the customer a “submission confirmation” to verify the Vehicle Transfer Notification has been completed, the owner said.

Breeland’s name is no longer “currently assigned” to his old license plate, Shaivitz confirmed.

TxTag said toll charges received after a license plate has been changed can be resolved if a customer provides proof the vehicle was sold.

“It’s important for people to follow the TxDMV’s process when they sell a vehicle and to update their TxTag account so they will not be billed for tolls charged to a vehicle they no longer own,” TxTag spokesperson Veronica Beyer said. “If a toll is incurred before DMV updates its database, TxTag will will work with the customer to ensure the tolls are charged to the registered owner of the vehicle …. All vehicle owner information is provided by the TxDMV database which is why it is important to ensure all customer

information is up to date.”

Breeland contacted KXAN after watching our investigations into paper tag fraud. He hopes what happened to him steers other drivers, and dealers, toward being more alert.

“I don’t want this to happen to somebody else,” he said.