AUSTIN, Texas — Harris County leaders are sounding the alarm on fake paper license plates, citing a new report that says crimes involving temporary tags have increased over 300 percent in the last six years.
County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said the fake plates have also cost Harris County an estimated $80 million in lost revenue over the same period.
"This is money that could have gone to improving our mobility, improving our roadways, improving our drainage, improving our community, supporting law enforcement, but that money is lost," Commissioner Garcia said.
The report by the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles said a total of 6.7 million temporary tags were printed in Harris County between 2016 to 2021. But only 3.2 million legit title and registration transactions were processed over those six years.
Hidalgo said they already knew the counterfeit tags were causing problems, but the report offers "disturbing proof" of just how bad the problem is.
It's become a lucrative enterprise for fake car dealers selling the paper tags online to drivers who want to avoid inspections, toll fees or worse.
"It's a venue for criminal elements to be able to get away undetected or with less detection," Hidalgo said.
Harris County launched a "Tag, You're It" enforcement initiative a few months ago that led to several arrests.
A new bill passed by the state in June also authorizes the DMV to limit the number of paper tags a dealership can print.
Hidalgo said more needs to be done at the state level to close the remaining Texas Department of Motor Vehicles loopholes that allow fake dealerships to print and sell the fake tags.
"The key message here is a local solution is not enough. We need statewide support over and above what has already been done to solve this statewide problem," Hidalgo said.
Texas lawmakers search for solutions
More help from the state could be just around the corner. Texas lawmakers on Tuesday began hearing arguments on paper license plates aimed at stopping scammers.
The Texas House Transportation Committee is scheduled to tackle the issue first. The Senate is expected to hold additional hearings in the coming weeks.
The head of the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles in February resigned amid pressure on the agency to address security vulnerabilities that have allowed criminals to create and sell hundreds of thousands of fake paper license plates.
Whitney Brewster announced her resignation at the time but did not directly address the issue surrounding the sale of fake license plates.
“I understand the frustrations of our stakeholders to the problems and evolving situations we are working daily to resolve,” Brewster said in a statement on Feb. 7. “Often the hardest thing to do as a public servant leader is to step back and accept that you have done everything you can and that it might be time to allow new leadership to take the reins.”
DMV cracks down on dealers
The Texas DMV has acted against dealers it said are abusing the system.
Records obtained by KHOU 11 News show that the agency revoked the license to print tags from 34 Texas dealers from the start of 2021 through the last week of February. Many of them were in Houston.
According to HPD’s Auto Theft Task Force, the DMV has put new limits on the number of tags a single dealer can print each month and made it easier to quickly shut down dealers for fraud.
Lone Star State called 'laughingstock of paper plates'
“Texas is the laughingstock of paper plates in the United States,” Vidor Police Capt. Edward Martin said.
Martin, who is also an executive board member of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, said he’s been following this issue for years.
"These people have direct access to the Texas DMV e-licensing system. It's the same tag. It's just issued illegally,” Martin said.
Martin said there is no vetting process in place.
“I can go in and put last name Smith first name John from Timbuktu, United States. They'll take it. They don't vet you. They don't want to know if you're a living human being,” he said.
Local and state leaders hope changes in the law will help put the brakes on these tag dealers.
The Texas Tribune contributed to this report.