AUSTIN (KXAN) — A years-long series of KXAN investigations into paper license plate fraud is helping drive change at the Texas Capitol, according to a state lawmaker who wants to do away with the state’s paper tag system.

“The more we dove into it, and the more we saw stories, like what you do,” said State Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth. “We realized what a major problem it is.”

In February 2020, an undercover sting operation at an Austin Walmart led law enforcement to a trove of paper tags. Investigators with the Travis County Constable’s Office Precinct 3 found more than 450 phony license plates saved on a cell phone. As KXAN previously revealed, it’s part of a booming $200 million black market with sales to all 50 states. The bogus tags turn vehicles into “ghost cars” making them virtually untraceable by law enforcement.

Rep. Craig Goldman holds an altered temporary tag showing a fake car dealership named after him. (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

‘The only fix’

“The only fix, in our opinion, is to get rid of paper tags altogether,” Goldman said at his Capitol office.

Goldman filed multiple bills this session, including House Bill 718, which would eliminate paper buyer tags in favor of only metal ones. The bill received a hearing with the Texas House Transportation Committee on March 29 and passed through on April 5 in a vote of 11-0.

The bill was amended to include the elimination of paper permits in addition to paper tags. It now goes to the Calendars Committee for consideration by the House.

Goldman credits KXAN’s investigations for helping to spark his legislation. He said news reports helped make him aware of the “extent” of the problem. Before the hearing, a stack of news articles were stacked on his desk, including several from KXAN’s “Risky Rides” series of investigations.

“It’s a major issue,” Goldman said.

‘No other way out’

Law enforcement packed Wednesday’s hearing in a show of support for the bill. Among them was Sgt. Jose Escribano, with the Travis County Constable’s Office Precinct 3. Escribano has led the statewide charge to stop the “scourge” of tax fraud.

“Make no mistake, there is no other way out of this mess other than the total elimination of paper tags,” Escribano said. “The Texas DMV has tried to change the appearance of the paper tag with countermeasure after countermeasure to no avail.”

“At the end of the day, this is still a piece of paper,” he said, holding a temporary tag. “You can dress a pig in a suit, but at the end of the day, he is still a pig.”

Tawny Solbrig also testified in favor of the bill. She told lawmakers what she told KXAN in January 2022 — that her 18-year-old son, Terrin, was killed by a driver with a fraudulent paper tag.

“This is not a victimless crime. People’s lives are in danger,” she said. “My son just turned 21 and I had to go visit him at the cemetery because the State of Texas did not take it seriously. When all these law enforcement back here told y’all y’all had had a problem, you didn’t listen. What are you going to do today? Are you going to listen? Are you going to take action?”

The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles declined to comment on any legislation. The agency touted its efforts over the past year to work with law enforcement to “prevent, detect, and investigate temporary tag fraud schemes on Texas roads.”

The TxDMV notes car dealers suspected of fraud are now able to be immediately cut off from its eTAG system and are reported to law enforcement for criminal investigation.

News articles, including several from KXAN, printed out on Rep. Craig Goldman’s desk, next to a temporary tag altered to show a fake car dealership named after him. (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

“The department is not currently aware of any actions, processes, or interventions that would guarantee elimination of all possible future fraud,” TxDMV spokesperson Wendy Cook said. “While criminals will continue to seek ways to circumvent the law, Texas has addressed the outstanding administrative concerns with the temporary tag process and will continue to prioritize the further reduction of fraud as additional solutions are identified.”

A new concern for law enforcement is the ease with which Texas’ new security-enhanced tags can be altered. Central Texas Deputy David Kohler said computer software is being used to alter dates and manipulate watermarks and QR codes.

A temporary tag that had its expiration date, QR code and watermark manipulated with computer software (Courtesy David Kohler) and a news release sent by TxDMV showing the new security-enhanced paper tag (Courtesy TxDMV).

‘A tagdemic’

Kohler, and others, testified at a different hearing this month for House Bill 914, filed by State Rep. Cole Hefner, R-Mt. Pleasant. His bill would make clear paper tags are “government records” when it comes to tampering. Law enforcement said the clarification would make this type of fraud easier to prosecute.

At that hearing, Kolher held up an altered paper tag that was manipulated in several ways with computer software, including changing the expiration date to a made-up date of “Dec. 45, 2056.”

“I’ve been working on this for the last five years,” Escribano said. “We’re still not finished with this. There’s still more work to be done.”

Escribano described the current situation as a “tagdemic.”

Back at Goldman’s office, he holds up an altered temporary tag sent to him by law enforcement “within one hour” of the TxDMV releasing its new security-enhanced temporary tags. It was for a car that didn’t exist sold by “Craig Goldman Auto.”

“No, I do not own an auto dealership,” Goldman said, laughing. “But other than that, everything on here is real, including the QR code.”

The Texas Automobile Dealers Association, which represents 1400 dealerships, expressed concerns when it comes to storing and securing metal license plates. TADA also wants to see “some type of remedy” in the event a dealer doesn’t have a hard plate in stock at the time of a sale — asking for a “safety valve.” The Texas Independent Automobile Dealers Association did not respond to requests for comment.

If passed, Goldman’s bill wouldn’t take effect until March 2025, he said — enough time to iron out details.

“The amount of crime that is caused with these paper tags, the amount of criminal activity…the amount of loss of life because we allow paper tags in this state is through the roof,” said Goldman at the hearing for his bill, “And we didn’t know about it, we truly didn’t know about it, until we filed the bill.”