AUSTIN (KXAN) — It’s March 17, 2020, and Sgt. Jose Escribano with the Travis County Constable’s Office is behind the wheel of his patrol car. At 2:21 p.m. on a clear Tuesday afternoon, he turns on his body camera video and starts recording as he makes an unprecedented announcement.

“I’m headed to 4000 Jackson [Avenue]. As a matter of fact, I’m on Jackson [Avenue] now to serve a evidentiary search warrant,” Escribano said. “On the Texas DMV. Concerning our cases.”

In recent months, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles touted its close working relationship with law enforcement. At the same board meeting in January where a mother told the TxDMV her son was killed in a car crash by a driver with a fraudulent tag, Executive Director Whitney Brewster, who resigned Monday amid our investigations and questions over the state’s handling of the tag problem, said she was “committed to working with law enforcement in every way” to stop crooks from infiltrating its system.

A series of KXAN investigations found criminals are easily printing real temporary tags with fake information, creating a national security risk.

Instead of “working fully with law enforcement,” body camera video obtained exclusively by KXAN, along with emails and interviews, shows a strained relationship with the TCCO going back several years.

“I’m with the Constable’s Office,” Sgt. Escribano said as he walks into the TxDMV’s Austin headquarters. “And I have a search warrant for these premises.”

Raiding the TxDMV was the culmination of multiple requests and denials for records. Escribano and his team said the information was “necessary” for its active criminal investigations into fraudsters. Posing as car dealers, people can obtain a car dealers license from the TxDMV, which gives them access to its WebDealer system. That access allows them to fraudulently produce and sell real temporary tags with fake information. It also makes the state’s previous countermeasures — including watermarks to make the tags harder to counterfeit — practically useless. The paper plates are sold to all 50 states, allowing criminals to avoid detection, in what has become a booming $200 million black market, according to Escribano and internal law enforcement records reviewed by KXAN.

“The information that is listed below is necessary for our law enforcement purpose,” a criminal analyst with the TCCO said in one email days before the TxDMV raid. Almost a year earlier, in June 2019, Escribano told the TxDMV that going through “several layers” of delays would “hamper our efforts” to investigate crimes.

On multiple occasions, the TxDMV refused to turn over records, emails show. The agency told the attorney general’s office it was “withholding” information due to pending criminal investigations by other agencies, including the Department of Public Safety.

Escribano said the attorney general’s office told him the TxDMV could not be compelled to turn over records. Clearly frustrated, he told his team after his “THIRD submittal” for records in January 2020: “I really have no words at this point that I can write on a county email.”

A month after the raid, Escribano and his team did receive most of the records he requested. However, records show, he did not receive everything a judge signed off on, including direct access to the TxDMV’s WebDealer system. That would give investigators real-time access to data on criminal suspects and is something the agency has been asking for since 2017.

“TxDMV routinely provides records to law enforcement to assist with investigations,” a TxDMV spokesperson told KXAN. “The department follows various state and federal laws that regulate TxDMV’s responsibilities for releasing records.”

“Most of the information sought in the Clean Air Task Force (CATF) search warrant could have been obtained by submitting a simple request via email,” the spokesperson added, referencing the name of Escribano’s task force. “When this was explained to them, they made the request by email and were provided responsive information.”

Still image from body camera video shows the 2020 search warrant served at the TxDMV. (Courtesy Travis County Constable’s Office)

The TxDMV insists it “works closely” with local, state, and federal law enforcement. The agency points to joint efforts with DPS, the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, and an interagency operation in Dallas that resulted in several arrests.

“The department is also working with local law enforcement to embed TxDMV investigators in operations around the state to help identify the illegal sale and use of temporary tags as part of criminal investigations,” the spokesperson added. “TxDMV welcomes any opportunity to work with law enforcement at all levels of government across the state as they pursue investigations into motor vehicle crimes.”

If the agency works closely with law enforcement, Escribano says he hasn’t seen it. This past December, his team asked if the TxDMV did a site inspection of a suspected fraudster. An administrative assistant responded in an email shared with KXAN that “a state agency does not have to answer questions.”

At last month’s board meeting, Brewster seemed to acknowledge previous tensions with the TCCO saying “there is room for improvement.” The TxDMV is now promising to work in a more “collaborative” manner with law enforcement.

“I would love that,” Escribano yelled back to Brewster at the meeting.

One topic on the agenda to be discussed by the board this week is an update on “law enforcement communication efforts.”

Secret recordings show TxDMV knew about fake VINs despite ‘defect’ claim

In December 2019, several months before serving the search warrant, Escribano secretly recorded a private meeting between law enforcement and TxDMV officials. The recording reveals TxDMV officials were aware that people could enter obviously fake vehicle identification numbers into its system using too many numbers and characters like exclamation marks and periods, which real VINs do not allow.

Two years later, Brewster blamed “a system defect” when KXAN asked why fake VINs were able to be uploaded into the TxDMV system without any automatic rejections or red flags. One egregious example, according to law enforcement records, included a website that was accepted as a legitimate VIN.

The secret recordings KXAN obtained from Escribano suggest it was a problem the agency has known about for years. In the recordings, TxDMV officials rejected tightening VIN verification, despite being told about the problem from law enforcement, because they worried being too strict would reject non-conforming VINs typically found on trailers and hurt legitimate businesses.

“We couldn’t lock it down so tight that it stopped commerce,” a TxDMV official said, adding, “we had to back down off of how tight that VIN verification was ratcheted on that system because of that problem that occurred.”

“With the VINs, I can always try and go crank those [VIN verification measures] down,” the TxDMV official said. “Generally, when I crank those down, I started getting pushback on the other side of things. Because I’ve got a business industry that is highly vocal that’s sitting on the other side.”

David Kohler, a sheriff’s deputy in Central Texas, attended the 2019 meeting and confronted the TxDMV.

“There’s no defect,” Kohler said recounting what happened to KXAN. “There’s no glitch in the system. Because they were made aware of it two years ago.”

Since then, the TxDMV said it made changes to correct the way VINs are entered: one in 2020 — “to improve the manual entry of vehicle identifiers” — and a second on Dec. 6, 2021 — “to correct a defect … with the file upload process licensed dealers use to report sales data.”

Escribano said it’s not enough. He wants the state to verify that every VIN entered into its system is legitimate. Without that, he said law enforcement won’t know if the car they pull over is salvaged or stolen.

“They were told about it and just took no action, for whatever reason,” Escribano said, looking back on the 2019 meeting. “That’s just negligence.”

It is unclear if the TxDMV’s changes have stopped fake VINs from being entered into its system. Law enforcement praised recent measures to crack down on these crimes. The most important change, Escribano said, is a new measure to “immediately” cut off access to its WebDealer system for any dealers suspected of fraud.

Escribano feels other fixes don’t go far enough when it comes to shutting down phony car dealerships that exist solely on paper. For instance, he wants all non-franchised licensees to be fingerprinted — not just when they first apply or renew their applications.

It’s an idea the TxDMV said it is currently studying.

“[If we don’t fingerprint everyone], all my criminals that I’m looking at, they can operate for another two years,” he said. “And they’ll be unvetted.”

He credits KXAN for recent changes.

“Matt you, you exposing it,” Escribano said. “If it wasn’t for that, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, we wouldn’t be here.”

Legislative action

While the TxDMV is looking to fix things now, lawmakers are also paying attention to see what can be done in the long term. Rep. Terry Canales (D-Edinburg) chairs the Texas House Transportation committee. He said this issue is a top priority for him.

“We will be talking about this next session,” Canales said. “Quite vigorously.”

In the meantime, Canales asked the speaker of the House to allow an interim hearing on this issue. Canales wants to figure out what laws, if any, need to change to create a long-term solution.

“It’s a huge deal to me,” he said. “And it should be a big deal to everybody.”

He said potential legislation is being considered due, in part, to what KXAN uncovered.

“[It’s because of investigative reporting,” he added. “So, I want to tell you how grateful I am, and our office is, because the work that media does. It sheds sunlight on things that, perhaps, we wouldn’t have known about. So, y’all are doing a great job.”

Facebook investigating disguised ads

Texas paper license plates, produced fraudulently, are often bought and sold on Facebook. A KXAN investigation found several ads that, in recent weeks, appear to now be disguising what’s really being sold.

At least two ads selling fraudulent temporary tags in the Austin area used photos of drills or tires, KXAN found. Only when you look closely do you see a tiny photo of a Texas license plate, or the seller’s location listed as “DMV,” or see “60 days temporary” written in Spanish — signaling how long the tag is good for — signaling what’s really being offered up .

In response to what KXAN uncovered, the social media network is now investigating.

“We prohibit the sale of fraudulent vehicle tags and encourage people to report suspicious listings to us,” said a spokesperson for Facebook’s parent company, Meta. “We are collaborating with the Texas DMV to understand the scope and sale of the problem; we continuously work to improve our detection efforts and remove listings that violate our policies.”

Meta said it will review and remove any listings that violate its policy. Information received from the TxDMV is helping the company improve its processes to identify violations, a Meta spokesperson added.

Anyone who sees a suspicious listing is encouraged to report it.

Scrapping paper tags?

All this has led some to call on the state to scrap the entire paper tag system — at least for now.

The Tax Assessor-Collectors Association of Texas sent the TxDMV a letter last month recommending a two-year halt on issuing all paper license plates. The agency wants the state to switch to metal plates in order to “address these very serious concerns.”

For now, it appears all options are being considered.

“The recommendations from the Tax Assessor-Collectors Association, along with other ideas for temporary tag process improvements,” a TxDMV spokesperson told KXAN, “are under review by the department.”