AUSTIN (KXAN) — Following a series of KXAN investigations, recent changes aimed at fixing Texas’ paper license problem appear to be working.

The mass-producing of fraudulent paper license plates — a problem that has plagued Texas for years — has hit “almost a screeching halt” amid tighter restrictions, according to local law enforcement.

“What y’all have done over the past three months is exemplary,” central Texas law enforcement officer David Kohler said, speaking to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles board on Thursday. “Leaps and bounds [improvement] over the last two months compared to the previous three years. It’s very noticeable.”

A state law signed last year, allowing the TxDMV to immediately cut off access to its system for anyone suspected of fraud, combined with tougher measures passed by the board in recent months — including setting limits on how many tags can be issued — appear to be working, according to Kohler, who was previously critical of the state’s handling of the paper tag crisis.

“I’m glad that we have stopped giving the candy away for free,” said Kohler, referencing the ease at which criminals, for years, have been able to infiltrate the TxDMV’s system by posing as car dealers. That access has allowed crooks the ability to fraudulently print and sell real temporary tags, which are used to cover up crimes, and has ballooned into a $200 million black market, according to law enforcement.

Since January, the agency said it blocked 30 dealers suspected of fraud. Instead of criminals printing “thousands upon thousands” of fraudulent paper tags, that number has dropped to “dozens” or ” a couple hundred,” according to TxDMV acting executive director Daniel Avitia.

“The full impact of these actions already taken will take time to understand and to feel,” said TxDMV board chair Charles Bacarisse. “But it is already clear the opportunity to abuse temp tags in the state of Texas has been materially reduced from what it was at the end of last year.”

“All these actions are good,” he added. “But we’re not done. Far from it.”

TxDMV board members meet on April 14 to give an update on temporary tag fraud abuse. (Courtesy TxDMV)

‘Not enough’

As state lawmakers get ready to hold interim hearings on the issue, Avitia said the work done so far is “not enough.”

“Staff has worked tirelessly to help curtail the fraud that we had seen in the past,” Avitia said. “The efforts are working.”

A rule is being drafted, he announced, for potential adoption in June, that would require car dealers be fingerprinted, at their own expense, during the application process and when their license is renewed. It’s a measure law enforcement agencies have begged the board to adopt. Avitia called it the “single most important solution” that would solve “more than 90 percent” of paper tag fraud.

In response to law enforcement frustrations over a lack of access to records, for years, the agency is now creating a dedicated center, along with a “closed data portal platform,” to ensure information and data requests are easily obtained by law enforcement officers investigating tag fraud, Avitia said.

“The department has significant work to do in improving our relationships with law enforcement throughout the community” at the local, state and federal levels,” he said, promising to “make sure the data available to them is what they need.”

Kohler told the board his frustrations stemmed from “not being able to pick up the phone” and get “basic” information related to cases.

The TxDMV is also working to stop illegal online sales of paper tags and is considering a future “redesign” of the process, including switching to a different material other than paper, Avitia said.

While the tougher measures appear to be working, the challenge for law enforcement is staying ahead, Kholer said. Crooks are moving away from printing tags to altering them.

For every prevention method, a new roadblock appears.

“And, now the [fraudulent] New Mexico tags are coming out,” he said to a mixed reaction of laughter and disbelief. “So, that’s another issue.”