Investigations

TxDMV halts parts of online paper license plate system amid fraud concerns

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Some drivers who need a temporary paper license plate for their vehicle will no longer be able to get one from the Texas Department of Motor Vehicle's website after the state agency suspended portions of its online system.

As of Tuesday evening, 30-day and one-trip permits were no longer available online. Drivers needing 72 and 144-hour permits can still obtain those online. 

The change comes after the DMV admitted to a "vulnerability" in its system and after KXAN reported about a new temporary paper license plate system implemented in April to help cut down on fraud.

The DMV previously said the new plates featured a difficult-to-copy “security star” and “security threads,” which prevent individuals from making photocopies of the tags.

But one law enforcement officer says it's easy for users to recreate the new design. 

KXAN is not detailing the specific concern with the new tag in an effort to prevent any additional fraud.

“We are working on some additional security features that we obviously cannot discuss,” the DMV said Tuesday in a statement to KXAN. “But I can tell you that TxDMV continuously evaluates the security features of temporary tags and is currently working expeditiously and collaboratively with law enforcement to implement related enhancements.”

Sgt. Jose Escribano, with Travis County Constable Pct. 3, said earlier this month he discovered a flaw that makes it easy for criminals to create realistic-looking, yet fraudulent paper license plates.

“They thought that they had set something up pretty good, but it had a lot of vulnerabilities,” said Escribano, adding that he emailed the DMV about his concerns.

The DMV responded to Escribano with details about how they will work to prevent future abuse and said the agency is also looking at how other states handle their temporary permits as they consider a better long-term solution.

During KXAN’s “Risky Rides” investigation, we went undercover at fly-by-the night dealerships suspected of issuing fake paper license plates.

Our investigation showcased how fake plates let undetected drivers mask cartel-related crimes, such as money laundering and trafficking, and ultimately resulted in about a dozen arrest warrants for vehicle-related fraud.

Regardless of the design of a paper plate, the DMV has told KXAN the strongest security feature on it is the unique alphanumeric number, which officers can run through their database if they pull an individual over.

“If law enforcement runs them and they don’t get a current vehicle in the system, then it’s gonna tell them, 'hey this tag is not associated with a vehicle in the system.' It’s not valid, and therefore, you’ve got somebody that’s got a fraudulent tag,” said Jeremiah Kuntz, director of the DMV’s Vehicle Titles and Registration Division, in an April interview with KXAN.

On Monday, an officer with the Austin Police Department noticed a vehicle whose paper license plate had one too many letters versus numbers.

Jason Jarritt Johnson, 27, allegedly told the officer that when his old temporary tag expired, he “went to ‘some dude at a house’ to purchase and print him the current temporary tags on his vehicle,” according to an affidavit.

After the new dealer plates were implemented in April, the DMV informed law enforcement officers that it would be at least 60 days before all those old paper plate designs were off the roadways due to the plate’s expiration dates.

It’s unclear if the paper tag on Johnson’s car had the DMV’s old or new design.

Fake paper plates, or even legitimate plates that are obtained fraudulently through the DMV’s website, have been known to be used by criminals committing auto thefts and burglaries or even cartel activity.

“If they can print these things at will, they can put it on any car they want and that’s the problem,” Escribano said.

Constable Stacy Suits, of Travis County’s Pct. 3, said the use of paper plates increased after the Texas Legislature voted in favor of the Two Step, One Sticker program, which tied inspection and registration stickers together.

“What we did was shift the problem from counterfeit inspection stickers and inspection reports to paper plates,” Suits said. “We set up a whole new Pandora’s box that’s being abused by some members of the community.”

While the online temporary tag system is down, the DMV said drivers can still get one at TxDMV Regional Service Centers and county tax assessor-collector offices.