LAKEWAY, Texas (KXAN) — Weimar patrol officer Tom Donalson drove two hours to attend an eight-hour buyer’s tag boot camp. In his over 30-year career in law enforcement, he’s never seen anything as big as Texas’ paper tag fraud problem, which was exposed in a series of KXAN investigations.

“I didn’t know the extend of it, no. I didn’t,” Donalson said. “This was very much eye-opening.”

Inside a large room at the Lakeway Police Department, law enforcement agencies from around the region sat and took notes as Sgt. Jose Escribano played a KXAN investigation on a projection screen.

“I want you to go ahead and take a look at this video from KXAN,” said Escribano, who works with the Travis County Constable’s Office and is one of the leading experts in the state on paper tag fraud. “Thank you, Matt [Grant]. Very, very good coverage right there.”

KXAN’s ongoing investigations into Texas’ “risky rides” are being used to educate law enforcement officers as to the scope and magnitude of the state’s problem.

Sgt. Jose Escribano uses a KXAN “Risky Rides” investigation as part of law enforcement training (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant).

In recent years, criminals have infiltrated the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles’ system by posing as car dealers. That access allows them to print and sell real temporary tags to all 50 states, Escribano said. With Texas now cracking down, the mass-producing of tags has come to a “screeching halt,” according to central Texas law enforcement officer David Kohler, who’s teaching the class alongside Escribano. Kohler asked his agency not be identified because he is speaking only for himself.

Despite the slowdown, statewide fraud is still ongoing.

“It wasn’t until the news media actually went ahead and started reporting on this that we went and got some traction on this, which we’re very thankful for,” Escribano said.

“Otherwise,” he tells the class, “it wouldn’t have come out.”

‘They’re not trained for this’

This is Escribano’s 26th class so far this year. His goal is to do two a month, educating law enforcement across the state — from Amarillo to the border — about the problem, case law and how to catch criminals who try to hide in plain sight. KXAN was given exclusive access to a recent class.

On that day, he showed the class about how temporary tags are counterfeited and the counter-measures that are built in to help tell what’s real and fake in a ballooning $200 million black market.

“The font is off,” Escribano said as he pointed to an image of one fake tag.

“The letter will be right before the last [digit],” he said of another. “Always.”

Sgt. Jose Escribano during a recent paper tag fraud training class for law enforcement. (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

“It says ‘buyer’ on it but it has that ‘F’ at the end. No, no go. I don’t even have to run this,” he said of a different tag. “Look for the little things. You’re training your eye now to see this.”

From the “geometric layout” to the barcode to the watermark and the font type, the tags’ design alerts a hawkeyed officer to its legitimacy — if they know what to look for.

“Every time I go into a class like today, they are unaware of the majority of the tag problem or what to look for,” Escribano said. “They’re not trained for that.”

Donalson says what he and his colleagues are learning should be required of all officers as part of the basic academy curriculum.

“It’s that important,” Donalson said during a break. “I think that’s the most important thing for police officers is to know what the counter-measures are on this stuff.”

Other law enforcement agencies in attendance — including Highway Patrol, Texas Game Warden and the Caldwell County Constable’s Office — didn’t comment about sending their officers to this training or whether they’d incorporate it into officer requirements.

Escribano called the paper tag problem the “number one safety issue” for law enforcement in the country because it allows criminals to hide in plain sight. Tag fraud, he said, is often linked to burglaries and violent crimes like the killing of two law enforcement officers in Texas.

It’s a problem impacting all 50 states, he said

This week, the New York Police Department’s Ninth Precinct, which covers the East Village, warned New Yorkers about fake Texas license plates in a Facebook post.

“It’s almost a guarantee, if you drive around our Precinct with these plates, you will be arrested,” the NYPD warned.

Sgt. Jose Escribano shows officers what to look for to spot a fake temporary tag. (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

Rules change, crooks adapt

Escribano says criminals are now going back to counterfeiting and altering paper plates. In Travis County, and statewide, he is seeing an increase in real 30-day permits being used fraudulently along with permits being altered, including 144-hour ones. He is seeing these short-term permits used for everything from human smuggling to avoiding vehicle inspections and registrations.

“If you have Adobe Pro and you have a 6-year-old kid that knows how to use a computer, they can change a tag and … it’s going to look legitimate,” he said. “So the officers have to know what they’re looking for.”

Escribano says 30-day permits are “very easy to get.”

“Say, for example, you want to use a vehicle to commit some sort of crime,” he said. “You could go and get someone to get that 30-day permit for you, if you’re a criminal organization, and then use that tag to put on another vehicle. And then do whatever you’re going to do.”

In response, the TxDMV recently announced a crackdown on 30-day permits and how they are issued.

State lawmakers are also getting ready to tackle the problem. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee will hold an interim hearing about how illegal temporary tags intersect with human trafficking, drugs and murder. The House Transportation Committee will meet April 26 to look at the effectiveness of a 2021 law, HB 3927, meant to curb paper plate fraud.

The Travis County Constable’s Office is handing out this flyer to drivers stopped for illegal tags (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

While the problem is slowing down, it’s still prevalent, Escribano said.

He now carries with him, and hands out, flyers in the Austin area warning drivers not to buy illegal tags online, or use them at all.

“DO NOT buy a tag from Facebook or the internet, it is ILLEGAL,” the flyer, written in English and Spanish, said.

In the meantime, he wants officers to have the tools needed to fight back.

“Officers will not enforce what they don’t know,” he said. “And they’re just not teaching this.”