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Ghost Tags

Council Member Proposes New Fines for Temp Tag Fraud Following Streetsblog Investigation

Council Member Oswald Feliz (inset) will propose legislation to crack down on the problem of ghost plates documented in a three-part Streetsblog series. Illustration: Martin Schapiro

A City Council member plans to introduce legislation on Tuesday to combat temporary license plate fraud, one week after a three-part Streetsblog investigation exposed a vast black market for the sham paper tags that drivers use skirt accountability on the road.

Click to read part I of Coburn's series.
Click above to read all of Jesse Coburn's series.

The proposed legislation from Oswald Feliz (D-Bronx) would empower the city to fine New Yorkers caught selling temporary license plates and increase fines to drivers using fake or fraudulent temp tags, Feliz said in an interview on Monday.

"People are making a lot of money off this black market industry," Feliz said. "We don't want low fines to just be part of the cost of doing business. We want to make sure that people are truly being deterred."

The proposal follows Streetsblog's seven-month investigation, which found scores of used car dealers exploiting loose regulations in New Jersey and Georgia to fraudulently issue temp tags. Many of those tags end up on cars in New York City, where drivers use them to skip out on tolls, drive without car insurance or commit more serious crimes with their identities concealed.

Under Feliz's legislation, the city could fine temp tag sellers $1,000 for a first offense and $2,000 for every subsequent violation. Fines for driving with bad paper tags would rise to $500 for a first offense and $1,000 for a subsequent offense. Currently those fines range from $65 to $200, Feliz said.

The legislation would also increase fines for driving on expired temporary license plates to $300, although drivers could avoid that charge if they get proper metal plates within 10 days. Feliz said the new rules would be enforced by the city Police Department, Sheriff's Office and Department of Consumer and Worker Protection.

As for how the city would catch people selling temp tags illegally, Feliz said city investigators could track them down from the numerous ads for illegal temp tags posted on Facebook, Craigslist and Instagram. The Bronx lawmaker also said the city may ask out-of-state motor vehicle agencies to inform New York City when they catch New Yorkers committing temp tag fraud in their states.

Streetsblog found numerous New Yorkers operating dealerships in New Jersey and Georgia that have issued vast numbers of temp tags with no other discernible business activity. New Jersey and Georgia temp tags are among the most common on cars in New York City.

One example is Jessenia Baena, a Queens resident who admitted to Streetsblog that she illegally sold around 3,000 New Jersey temp tags through her licensed used car dealership. The dealership has no website, online inventory, online reviews or listing on Google Maps, and it's registered to a remote building in western New Jersey that serves as the official business address of dozens of other dealers. But Baena said she didn't even have to be at that address to profit from her dealership license. Instead, she was printing authentic New Jersey temp tags from her home computer in Queens, and selling them in the city and on Long Island for around $100 each — bringing in possibly $300,000 in revenue.

Jessenia Baena printed and sold New Jersey temp tags in Queens through a dealership registered to this quiet facility in remote Hackettstown, New Jersey. Photo: Johnny Milano
Jessenia Baena printed and sold New Jersey temp tags in Queens through a dealership registered to this quiet facility in remote Hackettstown, New Jersey. Photo: Johnny Milano

To cut off temp tag fraud at the source, Feliz called on New Jersey and Georgia to tighten their regulations surrounding used car dealers and temporary license plates.

"As a result of their lenient rules, we’re basically wasting a lot of resources — a lot of sheriff and NYPD resources — to tackle this issue," he said of Georgia and New Jersey.

New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission Spokesman Jim Hooker declined to comment, saying the agency does not comment on pending legislation.

Georgia Department of Revenue Spokesman Austin Gibbons referred Streetsblog on Monday to a previous statement released by the agency, which condemned "bad actors who abuse the state’s system to avoid title ad valorem taxes, use dealer plates and temporary operating permits to advance their criminal enterprise, and stain the reputation of hardworking Georgians engaged in the business of buying and selling motor vehicles." The agency is working with legislators and law enforcement to address the issue, the statement said.

Feliz also called on the federal government to establish nationwide standards on the appearance and issuance of temporary license plates. Temp tags look different from one state to the next, making it harder for city police officers to determine whether out-of-state tags are fake or fraudulent. Regulations on how temp tags are issued also vary considerably, with Georgia and New Jersey maintaining looser rules than New York and other nearby states, Streetsblog found.

The U.S. Department of Transportation on Monday did not respond to a request for comment on Feliz's appeal for federal action on the issue.

The street safety advocacy group Transportation Alternatives endorsed Feliz's proposal.

"Fake or fraudulent license plates make our streets more dangerous by allowing unchecked reckless driving," TA Senior Director Elizabeth Adams said in a statement. "Fraudulent license plates have always been illegal and it's time our city and state leaders enact measures that hold drivers accountable, including giving DOT enforcement ability and using AG authority to partner with other states to end this dangerous practice."

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