Police said they’re seeing an increase in fraudulent temporary license plates on cars around the D.C. region, and the temporary tags could be putting others on the roadway at risk being used on unsafe vehicles or to mask other potential criminal activity.
Richard Hunter couldn’t believe his eyes one morning in January when he walked out of his Lorton, Virginia, home.
"Saw the void where the car was supposed to be, went back inside. Asked my wife. And then we jointly freaked out," he told the News4 I-Team.
His Ford Escape was stolen.
Get DFW local news, weather forecasts and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC DFW newsletters.
"They said, ‘If you don't get it back within, you know, like the first couple of weeks, it's probably not going to come back,’" he said.
Two weeks later, police found his car in Dale City.
"It was a mess. Inside, there were clothes. It was marijuana. There was a whole bunch of things," said Hunter.
NBC 5 Investigates
Uncover. Reveal. Expose.
Also inside, according to a Prince William County police report obtained by the I-Team, a temporary license plate from Texas.
"Well, they said that that's a technique that thieves will do, will use or to mask the car,” Hunter said. “You slap one on a vehicle and you can drive around indefinitely."
It’s a troubling trend that’s flourished in the Lone Star state for years, now spreading to Northern Virginia and Maryland.
"We're seeing these tags multiple times per shift,” said Officer Sean McKinney with the Montgomery County Police Department. “If I had to take a guess, it'd be somewhere around 10-to-15 times per shift."
He said he first noticed temporary Texas tags five years ago.
By law, a driver can only get Texas temporary tags from the licensed dealer they purchased the car from in Texas. But McKinney said he’s seen the paper plates all over his area.
"You start to raise a little bit of question as to why so many people from Montgomery County are buying tags from a specific dealership in the state of Texas,” he said.
The I-Team hit the road and easily spotted temporary Texas tags. Police say most of the simple pieces of paper are likely being produced by questionable car dealers and other crooks and then illegally sold online.
"Being in Virginia and Texas so far away certainly is unique,” said Lt. James Curry with the Fairfax County Police Department.
Curry said the department has been focused on the issue since last year, trying to strike a balance between education and enforcement.
"It's on our officers to make a traffic stop, identify that person and find out what the deal with it is,” he said. “Why does somebody have these Texas system tags?"
The answer can vary from convenience to criminal activity. Experts said some might turn to buying the tags, running from $50 to $100, to avoid getting the vehicle inspected or insured.
Police body worn camera video obtained by the I-Team showed some drivers stopped in recent months told authorities the tags were already on the vehicle when they bought it and they didn’t know where they came from. Others told police they didn’t realize they were breaking the law when they bought one or thought it was a victimless crime. But multiple law enforcement agencies said some criminals are using them to drive without a license, disguise stolen cars or even smuggle drugs.
"It makes it almost impossible to track those vehicles down because they can use any address that they choose. One of the particular stops that I had, the individual's car was registered to the Astrodome," said McKinney.
So why Texas of all places? For starters, experts said the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles did very little vetting of new licensed car dealers. Almost anyone could pay less than a thousand dollars to setup a dealership, gain access to the state’s system that allows them to print official paper buyer’s tags and then sell them to people across the country for huge profits.
Law enforcement agencies and legislators across the U.S. have caught on and are now working together to stop it. Many of those agencies have turned to Cpl. Mike Bradburn with the Travis County Constable for help.
"Literally every state in our nation our tags have touched. Mexico to Canada, they're crossing the border using the Texas tags, all by tags online," Bradburn said.
Last year, he participated in an operation that uncovered nearly 1.2 million temporary tags illegally sold by just 17 Texas dealers with a profit of nearly $64 million. A simple search on Facebook Marketplace, OfferUp or Instagram can lead to ads for a temp tag. Bradburn said law enforcement and state lawmakers have put a dent in the pipeline, but criminals are getting more creative.
"Whatever program they're using – Adobe, Photoshop – and they're manipulating the tag. They're still selling the same tags you see in Texas, but they're a fake tag," he said.
The I-Team spotted tags in Virginia from at least five Texas dealers that were eventually shut down. Bradburn estimates they’re responsible for selling more than 755,000 temp tags around the country. When officers stop a vehicle with a suspicious tag and confirm it’s fraudulent, they normally seize it and cite the driver.
In 2020, Fairfax County did not charge a single person for fraudulent temp tags. But the next year, officers issued 94 citations, including arresting one person accused of selling a Texas tag to an undercover detective.
“That individual was charged with a forgery of these public documents,” said Curry.
The person was found guilty.
So far, there have been more than 40 citations this year.
Bradburn thinks more needs to be done.
"Until we actually put people in jail, the money is too good," he said.
Last year, Texas lawmakers did pass legislation to strengthen dealer security checks and limit the number of temporary tags they can print. But local police said the new policies have resulted in some crooks changing course.
"We've seen a rise recently in fraudulent Maryland tags, fraudulent New Jersey, fraudulent Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania," said McKinney.
Reported by Cory Smith; produced by Rick Yarborough; shot by Steve Jones, Lance Ing and Jeff Piper; and edited by Steve Jones.