AUSTIN (KXAN) — Emerging from an hours-long closed session, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles board promised a fix to the state’s paper tag problem.

“We want to get this right,” said TxDMV board member Brett Graham. “We want to get it right for you. We want to get it right for the citizens of this state.”

Fixes working, so far

Some of the changes the board has made are already working so far, according to law enforcement. Det. Mike Bradburn with Travis County Constable Pct. 3 says he used to see “25,000” fraudulent paper tags a week. Now, it’s in the “low hundreds.”

“There’s an immediate impact,” said Bradburn.

He says some crooks are now reverting back to trying to produce tampered tags instead of infiltrating the TxDMV’s system to print real ones. In 2018, the agency implemented new security features — like watermarks — to cut down on counterfeiting.

The board said Thursday it hopes to vote on fingerprinting new and existing car dealers in the coming months to cut down on phony dealerships created using stolen identification.

Central Texas sheriff’s deputy David Kohler holds up a temporary tag he was able to obtain on Feb. 5 with a VIN that, he says, should have been rejected by the TxDMV but wasn’t. (KXAN Photo/Richard Bowes)

Fake VINs, real problems

At the Jan. 27 board meeting, TxDMV enforcement division attorney Brian Ge was asked if vehicle identification numbers longer than 17 digits could be entered into its system.

Seventeen digits became the standard in 1981.

In December, Sgt. Jose Escribano with Travis County Constable Pct. 3 purchased a temporary tag in KXAN’s name, registering it to the Dallas Cowboys stadium with a VIN containing periods.

Law enforcement says characters that aren’t allowed in VINs — like periods and exclamation marks — are no longer able to be entered but VINs of any length can be.

“Has the programming been corrected so that only a 17-digit VIN, and it has to be the correct format of an actual VIN, has that been corrected?” asked board Vice Chair Tammy McRae.

“Yes it has,” responded Ge. “It was corrected when it was first brought up several years ago. And then when we noticed a defect that was brought to our attention in December and that was corrected the day after.”

But Central Texas sheriff’s deputy David Kohler says he has proof that isn’t entirely true.

“There is still another issue with VIN verification that has still yet to be resolved,” said Kohler.

Five days ago, he was able to register VINs with 15 and 18 characters — two below and one above the standard of 17. He says the VINs the TxDMV is allowing would be rejected on websites like CARFAX.

“Oh, I didn’t know that,” said TxDMV board member Stacey Gillman.

“We do not have VIN decoding software on the system,” said TxDMV Acting Interim Executive Director Shelly Mellott. “It’s definitely something we’re looking at and we think it’s a great idea.”

Mellott says some states, and older cars or trailers can use longer VINs. The board is considering VIN verification tools to verify what is being input into the system is legitimate — something Kohler says is crucial to keep law enforcement, and the public, safe.

“[The car] could have been involved in a kidnapping or a homicide or could be a stolen car,” said Kohler. “Or it could have been involved in a hit-and-run where there’s a fatality…and you have no way of knowing.”

Two resignations in four days

All of this is coming at a time of uncertainty for the agency now with general counsel Tracey Beaver resigning just days after executive director Whitney Brewster, amid a series of KXAN investigations and turmoil over the agency’s handling of the state’s paper license plate problem.

Brewster’s name still appeared on Thursday’s agenda, which is a reflection of her sudden decision to depart the agency abruptly. Both Kohler and Sgt. Jose Escribano with Travis County Constable Pct. 3 says it’s even more surprising given that Brewster offered to meet with them at the Jan. 27 meeting in an effort to improve communication with law enforcement.

“It was too sudden for me. Where did that come from?” he asked. “I have questions on that…I don’t know what to say…that was just sudden and you’re gone? Your counsel? I have questions.”

Escribano said he is happy with the changes made so far by the TxDMV but also worries the sudden shakeups at the agency will slow down the progress made so far.

He says law enforcement is ready to help the agency if asked.

“We are not going to stop,” he said. “Until we fix this.”