NBC 5 Investigates has uncovered more cases where fraudulent Texas temporary paper license plates, which are often sold illegally by small car dealers, ended up on vehicles used in serious crimes.
Police said the problem has grown to the point where Texas paper tags have become a felon’s best friend.
After first exposing how crooks were selling paper tags for a profit on a massive scale, NBC 5 Investigates wanted to see how often those tags were used on cars to commit crimes and hide from police.
The cars with illegal paper tags are often dubbed “ghost cars” by police because of the difficulty associated with tracking those cars when the tag was created using false information.
“They give people anonymity. It's a cloak, if you will, for the vehicle. They can use that number to hide who they are, where they live,” said Lake Worth Chief of Police J.T. Manoushagian.
Manoushagian said the fraudulent paper tags are a constant problem that his officers deal with every day.
Even federal agents are running into trouble when chasing criminals transporting drugs through North Texas in ghost cars.
“At least 80% of the investigations that we're conducting at some point have involved surveillance of vehicles or stops of drug-laden vehicles that have temp tags,” said Eduardo Chavez, DEA Special Agent in Charge.
One example, they said, is vehicles used by a major fentanyl smuggling ring in Fort Worth.
“Every single vehicle that this particular organization was using to move their drugs from Point A to Point B were [using] temp tags,” Chavez said.
As NBC 5 Investigates first reported, a lack of thorough vetting at the Texas DMV has allowed crooks, some even using stolen identities, to obtain car dealer’s licenses and then gain access to the state's tag system. Our investigation showed how the DMV does not fingerprint dealers when they apply for dealer licenses, allowing people with bad intentions to become “dealers” so they can sell tags instead of cars.
Once they are into the DMV’s electronic tag system those dealers can create tags registered to false names and addresses, print those tags, and sell them for profit on the black market. When police stop cars with fraudulent tags the bogus information in the computer can then be a dead end.
Paper Tag Nation
“A paper tag has become that hood that the bad guys put on their cars to mask the car's identity,” said Derick Miller, Carrollton Chief of Police.
When Carrollton police chased a driver suspected of firing shots into a house in October they said they feared if the car got away they might not find it because the car had a paper tag and so many paper tags are fraudulent.
DMV records obtained by NBC 5 Investigates show the tag on that car was created by a dealer we exposed in November -- Freeman Auto. In that report, we showed how Travis County investigators believe Freeman Auto is a shell company created to illegally sell tags.
“I've been to Freeman. It doesn't exist," said Sgt. Jose Escribano, Travis County Constables, Precinct 3.
State inspection records show the car that ran from Carrollton police was not allowed to have a paper tag from Freeman or any other car dealer because the state records indicate the car had not been inspected since 2019.
Dealers can only legally issue paper tags for cars that had a state inspection in the last 180 days and the dealer issuing the tag must be the dealer that actually sold the car.
“These tags coming out of one or two specific dealerships that you've identified are masking and basically enabling these bad guys to commit crimes,” Miller said.
Freeman Auto has not responded to numerous attempts to reach them. The DMV eventually shut Freeman down for suspected fraud.
In Arlington, police said they recently found a Freeman Auto tag used to disguise a stolen truck so that it could be sold to an unsuspecting buyer.
“That vehicle had all the identification numbers switched on it, and it had a paper tag that matched those false identification numbers,” said Sgt. Richard Coleman, with the Arlington Police Department.
After a recent hit-and-run crash, Arlington police began searching for the car and found five different cars driving around with copies of the same fraudulent paper tag.
Officer Eric Bray, a hit-and-run investigator with the Arlington Police Department, said he assumes any paper tag is probably illegitimate unless it’s on a new car.
“This problem has risen to a level where it requires significant action and attention,” Manoushagian said. He estimated about half of the tags his officers see in Lake Worth are fraudulent.
In one particular stop, the tag was for an Audi but the driver was behind the wheel of a Lexus. Inside the car, officers said they found more than 100 stolen debit cards, some with PINs on them. Lake Worth police said the man admitted to being part of an international group that applied for cards in other people's names and then swiped them from the victim’s mailbox when they arrived.
Investigators suspected the man used the fraudulent tag with the hope he'd avoid being caught if someone spotted him stealing mail.
“I would beg and plead with our lawmakers to take action now to correct this problem,” Manoushagian said, adding the area needs a tag fraud task force.
Dallas County had a task force, but as we reported Gov. Greg Abbott effectively de-funded those police units statewide in 2017 when he vetoed a clean air bill that contained funding for those teams in major cities across the state.
Since then police told us they've seen more crimes involving bogus tags.
“Any funding that we could get, to get some money to focus intentional efforts on this problem, would be paramount for us,” Miller said.
It's not just local police asking for help.
Off-duty New Orleans police officer Everett Briscoe was shot and killed during a robbery in Houston by two men who left the scene of the crime in a car with paper tags. One of Briscoe’s friends is now calling for more to be done to curb the proliferation of illegal tags.
Briscoe's death devastated friends in New Orleans including Jay Banks, a city councilman who knew Briscoe as a fellow member of a legendary Mardi Gras Parade Krewe.
“This cancer of senseless violence has got to stop,” Banks said, through tears after the incident in June.
Houston police declined to provide details on the tag involved in the shooting citing the ongoing investigation into Briscoe’s murder. Banks believes Texas needs to give police more money to make sure paper tags cannot be used to cover any crime.
“This is not just a white-collar, victimless crime if you are giving somebody a tool to go out and do a drive-by or a carjacking or a robbery of somebody,” Banks said.
For months Abbott has been silent on this issue. NBC 5 Investigates has asked to interview him multiple times but his office has declined. A spokesperson recently pointed us back to a previous statement the governor’s office sent NBC 5 which says that the governor has worked with the legislature to implement new rules that allow the DMV to shut down dealers suspected of fraud more quickly.
The statement goes on to say, “…we continue working with (the DMV) and the legislature to review other potential legislative changes needed and build on this progress.”
Meanwhile, since NBC 5 Investigates exposed the scale of paper tag fraud in November, the agency’s executive director recently resigned. Our reporting fueled more questions about the DMV’s own records which showed how people posing as dealers were able to print tens and even hundreds of thousands of tags for months, even though they appeared to have no business location where they were selling cars.
In the wake of NBC 5’s reporting, the Texas DMV board has started developing a plan to implement tougher background checks for people applying for dealer licenses. In January the DMV board approved new rules that allow the agency to crack down on dealers suspected of fraud more quickly by immediately denying them access to the electronic tag system.
But police told us they already see the crooks adapting to find ways to still obtain the tags which is why they said they still need funding for more investigators to tackle track down the offenders.
Part two of this story aired Monday night on NBC 5 News at 10 p.m. In that report, you'll hear from a family pleading with the governor and the legislature to help solve this problem. They lost their son in a car crash involving a vehicle with a fraudulent tag. Click here for that story.
PAPER TAG NATION
- June 12, 2023 - Gov. Abbott signs law eliminating paper license plates in Texas
- May 24, 2023 - Bill to Eliminate Paper License Plates in Texas Passes Texas Senate
- March 27, 2023 - Texas DMV's New Paper Tag Design Easily Counterfeited, Police Say
- Nov. 17, 2022 - Texas DMV Redesigns Paper License Tags to Include New Security Features
- Nov. 15, 2022 - Police Searching for Paper Tagged 'Ghost Car' in Deadly Grand Prairie Chase
- June 1, 2022 - Police Make Bogus Tag Bust Tied to Social Media Ads
- May 18, 2022 - TxDMV Names New Executive Director Amid Paper Tag Crisis
- May 17, 2022 - Vehicle Used in Dallas Salon Shooting Had Paper Tag
- May 12, 2022 - Ads for Fake Tags Persist, Despite Facebook, TxDMV Efforts
- May 4, 2022 - Texas' Paper Tag Problem Compounded by Small Dealers Misusing Them
- May 3, 2022 - Dallas Police Shut Down Accused Fake Paper Tag Dealer
- April 26, 2022 - Texas House Set to Hold Paper Tag Hearings
- April 14, 2022 - Texas DMV Cracks Down on Dealers Selling Temporary Paper Tags
- April 13, 2022 - TxDMV Closes Inspection Loophole That Put Unsafe Cars on Roads
- April 12, 2022 - Dallas Police Go Undercover to Fight Illegal Paper Tags
- April 7, 2022 - Police Warn of Fake Paper Tags Used to Cheat Car Buyers
- April 5, 2022 - Texas Senate Will Investigate Illegal Paper Tag Crimes, Smuggling
- March 9, 2022 - Texas Paper Tag Crime Danger Extends Nationwide
- March 5, 2022 - Texas House Will Hold Hearings on Paper Tag Mess
- Feb. 28, 2022 - License to Smuggle: Drug Cartels and Human Smugglers Use Paper Texas Tags to Evade
- Feb. 15, 2022 - Fort Worth Police Announce Special Operation Targeting Paper Tags
- Feb. 14, 2022 -- Crash Victim's Parents Want More Cops to Police Paper Tag Fraud
- Feb. 13, 2022 - More Funding Need to Fight Criminals Using Bogus Paper Tags: Police
- Feb. 10, 2022 - Police Report Drop in Fraudulent Tags But Warn Crooks Are Adapting
- Feb. 9, 2022 - Texas DMV Shuts Down Six More Dealers Suspected of Selling Paper License Tags
- Feb. 7, 2022 - TxDMV Director Resigns Amidst Paper Tag Mess
- Jan. 27, 2022 - TxDMV Takes Emergency Action to Keep Crooks From Selling Paper Tags
- Jan. 21, 2022 - Dallas Police Operation Targets Fraudulent Paper Tags
- Jan. 17, 2022 - Recording Shows Police Warned TxDMV of Paper Tag Security Flaw Years Ago
- Dec. 16, 2021 - DMV Committee Recommends Fingerprinting Some Dealers to Slow Paper Tag Fraud
- Dec. 14, 2021 - Texas House Transportation Chair Vows to Stop Paper Tag Fraud
- Dec. 6, 2021 - Texas DMV Boss Deflects Blame for Paper Tag Debacle
- Nov. 23, 2021 - Illegal Paper Tags Costing Texas Taxpayers and Toll Roads Millions
- Nov. 10, 2021 - Suspected Paper Tag Peddler Shut Down Tuesday, Reopens Wednesday: Investigators
- Nov. 8, 2021 - How Texas Paper Tags Became a $200M Criminal Enterprise: NBC 5 Investigates