HOUSTON - Temporary paper license plates seem to be popping up on cars all over Texas. While some of these plates are legitimate, others are fake.
"I hate the fact that they’re getting away with it," said Harris County Sheriff’s Deputy Melody Waits. "That’s what makes me more mad than anything. There’s no reason to get away with it."
The process begins online with the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles. People who pass relatively cheap requirements can become certified car dealers. While these vendors are supposed to only print buyer tags for actual car sales, illegitimate dealers sell bogus plates online without a car sale. These fake dealers can sell these plates by the thousands.
"You get to become a dealer," said Sergeant Jose Escribano from Travis County Constable Pct 3. "The minute you do; you get to start producing tags. No one vets your location. They say they do, but they don’t."
Sergeant Escribano and his team in Travis County helped the FBI indict three people this summer accused of issuing nearly 600,000 fake paper tags and selling them across the United States online. According to Escribano, one temporary tag can sell for roughly $100 in Texas and more than $300 in New York.
"Houston is ground zero," said Escribano. "The individuals that started this are in Houston. Because of the Internet, they can have someone producing tags in Mexico. You pay them with a cash app, and where does the money go? It’s limitless."
According to Deputy Waits, a Harris County deputy recently recovered nearly 200 of these fake tags from vehicles in the Houston area. One deputy found the fake plates within only two weeks on patrol.
"I can’t go a mile without seeing them," said Deputy Waits. "That’s how many vehicles are out there that shouldn’t be out there on the road."
FOX 26 obtained Texas DMV records to uncover the names of licensed car dealers in Texas and the number of buyer tags produced this year.
According to DMV records, a Houston auto shop called "Kasniels" sold 236,642 buyer tags from July 22, 2021, through November 8, 2021. Sgt. Escribano says it’s impossible for a dealership like that to sell more than 2,000 cars per day. Escribano believes the market street value of those tags is roughly $23 million.
One source tells FOX 26 that since January 2018, of the top 50 car dealers in Texas, only 17 were legitimate.
"A lot of them just put up a banner saying this is the used car dealership right here," said Waits. "It’s just an empty lot behind it. There’s no cars. There’s nothing."
People illegally buy these fake temporary tags online for many reasons. According to Waits, their vehicle might have failed inspection, they don’t have insurance, they don’t want to pay certain taxes or tolls, or they want to hide their identity possibly to commit crimes.
"If you get hit by a vehicle that’s like that, you’re never going to get it paid for," said Waits. "You might as well chalk it up as a loss."
As we’ve reported the last several months, many of the city’s recent high-profile crimes have involved suspects driving away in cars with temporary paper license plates.
In July, a 17-year-old was killed in a road rage shooting while leaving a Houston Astros game. Also, on August 2, people were shot dead at a restaurant in the Galleria area. In both instances, the alleged suspects drove away in cars with temporary tags.
For this report, FOX 26 worked with undercover investigators. As part of their investigation, these authorities easily purchased a fake tag on Facebook using a misspelled name, made-up vehicle, fake VIN number, and the address to Minute Maid Park. The "dealership" sent the tag to investigators for $30 to have it easily printed using a home printer.
Over the summer, Texas lawmakers passed House Bill 3927. The bill is designed to give the Texas DMV the ability to try and fix this issue.
We asked a DMV spokesperson if they could speak with us about these temporary license plates.
"We are not able to participate in interviews because we do not want to compromise the integrity of ongoing law enforcement investigations," said a DMV spokesperson. "Additionally, we do not want to get ahead of the rulemaking process for the implementation of House Bill 3927, which passed during the 87th Legislative Session. The department will meet again with the Motor Vehicle Industry Regulation Advisory Committee in December to consider written comments received. Staff will present a final rule for adoption at a subsequent board meeting. If adopted, the new rules and associated system limitations will prevent the large-scale misuse of temporary tags we have seen from entities that obtain licenses for unlawful purposes."
While the DMV has suggested limiting the number of temporary buyer tags issued per dealership, Sgt. Escribano believes fake dealers will just create more dealerships.
Instead, Escribano has suggested having dealers be fingerprinted.
"I’m trying to teach as many people as I can about them" said Waits. "It does cause a huge threat to all of us."