paper tag nation

Texas DMV's New Paper Tag Design Easily Counterfeited, Police Say

Officers seize dozens of fake tags mirroring the DMV’s new, more secure tags as lawmakers consider switching to metal plates

NBC Universal, Inc.

Police in Grand Prairie say most of the counterfeit temporary license plates their officers now encounter on the streets are spitting images of the Texas DMV’s new tag design, rolled out in February in an effort to curb fraud.

It’s evidence, some in law enforcement say, that the state cannot design its way out of the problem, that made Texas the “Paper Tag Nation."

“Full stop, no. Paper tags won’t work," Daniel Scesney, Grand Prairie Police Chief, told NBC 5 investigates.

As Scesney spoke, his conference table was covered with almost 200 fake tags his officers seized in recent operations. Just last week, Grand Prairie officers seized about one fake tag every 10 minutes during a six-hour-long special operation spread out over two days.

NBC 5 Investigates rode with Grand Prairie officers as they tried to tackle the problem one counterfeit at a time.

“You've got to get your car legal to be on the road, OK? You need to get registered,” Detective James Jones said to one driver as officers made a traffic stop for a fake tag.

Officers seized dozens of counterfeit, many from people suspected of using them to mask the fact that they have no insurance or driver's license or have a vehicle that could not pass a state inspection needed to be on the road legally.

Frustrations with the fake tags are piling up not only for Grand Prairie officers on the street but also for Scesney. He’s fed up with the astounding number of fake tags, most of which he says are now replicas of the DMV’s new design, with security features designed to prevent counterfeiting, including an embedded QR code that’s supposed to link to the car’s Texas DMV registration information, including the owner’s name and address.

Scesney says crooks quickly faked the DMV’s web, too.

“You are holding an excellent example of a fictitious tag where the criminal took that next step to make a fictitious website,”  Scesney said to NBC 5 Senior Investigative Reporter Scott Friedman, showing him some tags officers seized with QR codes that link to phony websites looking just like the DMV’s registration site.

An officer on the street would have to look closely at the web address to see it’s not really the DMV’s site.

Scesney has made eliminating paper tags his mission since the death of officer Brandon Tsai, who died in a crash while pursuing a car with a fraudulent paper tag.

In a yearlong series of reports, NBC 5 Investigates showed how paper tags are often used to create “ghost cars” criminals use in serious crimes, including shootings and cross-border smuggling.

In the wake of the NBC 5 reports, the Texas DMV took major steps to crack down on small car dealers that were illegally selling real temporary tags right out of the state's system in massive numbers. But as more of those dealers were shut down, police say counterfeiters stepped in aided by the fact that the paper tags come in a PDF format which is easily reproduced.

“I challenged my public information officer team, make me a fake tag…It took them about an hour to create the first one,” said Scesney.

Once they had a template, Scesney says they could crank them out much faster.

To make a point, they even made a tag that has “NBC 5” as the tag number and “Investigative Team Motors” as the dealer name.

“All we do is plug in whatever number we want, put in the new date. And it takes us now about 2 minutes,” said Scesney. To prove a point, Scesney’s team also quickly created their own website with a QR code link that mirror’s the DMV’s.

On Wednesday, the Texas House Transportation committee holds a hearing on a bill introduced by state Representative Craig Goldman, that would require the DMV to use only metal tags.

“Until someone comes to me with a better solution, our goal is to eliminate paper tags in the state,” Goldman told NBC 5 Investigates in an interview at the state Capitol.

Under current state law, the TxDMV has no choice but to issue temporary tags made of paper.

In a statement to NBC 5, a TxDMV spokesman said that, as a state agency, the TxDMV does not take a position for or against any proposed legislation, such as the bill that would eliminate paper tags. The department said over the last year it has taken substantial steps to reduce tag fraud.

“While criminals will continue seeking ways to circumvent the law, Texas has made considerable regulatory improvements to address the expressed concerns with the temporary tag process, within existing statutory authorizations,” the statement said.

Grand Prairie Police won't rest until Texas eliminates paper tags. A fake tag hanging above Chief Scesney’s desk is a reminder of why. It’s printed with Officer Tsai’s name and badge number.

“Keeping that top of mind for me is my number one priority right now and making sure that we can do everything possible to get rid of these paper tags in Texas,” said Scesney.


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