AUSTIN (KXAN) — A Texas Department of Motor Vehicles committee said it would consider “any and all measures” to crack down on the state’s paper tag fraud problem and put the brakes on what has become a booming $200 million black market.
“Any and all measures are being considered by the agency to combat temporary tag fraud,” said TxDMV Vehicles, Titles and Registration Division Director Roland Luna, Sr.
The agency is in overdrive to stop crooks from posing as car dealers, using licenses to print and sell real temporary license plates. The TxDMV Legislative and Public Affairs Committee met just two days after former executive director Whitney Brewster resigned amid a series of KXAN investigations and turmoil over the state’s tag problem.
Among the recommendations discussed to help curb fraud: VIN verification to make sure cars being registered aren’t stolen or salvaged; tougher background checks for car dealers — including fingerprinting non-franchised applicants at their expense at a cost of $38 — and conducting on-site inspections of independent dealerships.
Law enforcement is pushing for all of those measures, including in-person inspections, arguing that is crucial to stop fraud. Law enforcement records show phony dealers have used doctored photos of fake dealership locations to obtain licenses to operate.
Fixing this fraud will cost taxpayers and the cost could be as high as $1-2 million a year, according to TxDMV enforcement division attorney Brian Ge.
The TxDMV gets, on average, 4000 new dealer applications a year, according to Ge. To conduct in-person inspections of each one the agency will need to hire investigators and purchase vehicles, which will be staged across the state — mostly in Austin, Dallas, and Houston.
On the low end, the agency would have to hire 14 additional investigators, a supervisor, and an attorney at a cost of $900K a year, Ge said. Eleven vehicles would have to be purchased for a one-time cost of $275,000. Ge said the number of applications is expected to increase each year, meaning the agency will have to incrementally hire more staff — or the time it takes for a dealer to get a license will be delayed.
The average time to get a new dealers license now is 16 days.
“We only have so many people that can visit so many sites,” Ge said.
On the high end, to inspect dealers renewing their licenses, new applicants and anyone with location or business changes would cost $1.6 million a year, Ge said.
If a location can’t be verified through “a Google search” or there are known affiliations with suspected fraudsters or other concerns, the TxDMV already conducts on-site inspections as needed, officials said.
Since the board voted to “immediately” cut off access to anyone suspected of fraud at its Jan. 27 meeting, Ge says the TxDMV has already stopped a half dozen questionable dealers from printing new tags. Asked if the agency is making progress “on getting this stuff shut down,” Ge responded the measures are working.
“Not only are we getting [fake dealers suspected of fraud] shut off fairly quickly,” he said, “we are also giving them the due process that they’re owed.”
Officials say they have reached out to other states to find out what best practices and technologies are working elsewhere.
“We want to make sure we compile all of our research, and analysis ,and we identify those items that are needed to fulfill those gaps that we have at the department,” said Luna Sr., “so that we can continue to combat temporary tag fraud.”
He says the agency is looking at biometric and two-factor security measures for dealers along with other increased security features for tags.
The TxDMV board meets Thursday. The board is expected to get updates and discuss ways to stop criminals from infiltrating its system.