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Ghost Tags

Streetsblog Wins Polk Award for ‘Ghost Tags’ Series

Reporter Jesse Coburn received the prestigious award for exposing a vast black market for temporary license plates that reckless drivers use to avoid accountability on the road.

File photo: Gersh Kuntzman|

Here’s Jesse Coburn interviewing a source for his Polk Award-winning series on fraudulently issued temporary license plates — a series that has already led to change in New Jersey and Georgia.

Streetsblog Investigative Reporter Jesse Coburn has won a George Polk Award for his series on the black market for fraudulent paper license plates that exploded during the pandemic.

"Ghost Tags: Inside New York City’s Black Market for Temporary License Plates" was published over three days in April 2023 and has already led to legislative reforms in New Jersey, with additional bills pending in Georgia and New York.

"Jesse's hard work not only changed the law in New Jersey, but has now earned him one of the highest accolades in journalism," Streetsblog Editor Gersh Kuntzman said. "He put in seven months of reporting in three states to create a picture of a completely broken system that reckless drivers and shady car dealers exploited, creating unsafe streets for the rest of us. His reporting, frankly, makes New Yorkers safer. I'd be wrong if I didn't say I was damn proud, and very jealous, of him."

Winning the prestigious Polk prize is just the latest honor for the series, which won a Sidney Award in July and last week was shortlisted for the Goldsmith Prize.

Winning the Polk prize in the Local Reporting category, Coburn joined a cohort of the most talented reporters in the country. The winners this year included the staff of the New York Times (in the Foreign Reporting category for work in Gaza); Joshua Kaplan, Justin Elliott, Alex Mierjeski, Brett Murphy of ProPublica (National Reporting on questionable gifts received by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas); Luke Mogelson of the New Yorker (Magazine Reporting from the front line in Ukraine); Masha Gessen of the New Yorker (Commentary); and Jason Motlagh of Rolling Stone, who won the Polk's special Sydney Schanberg Prize for his reporting from Haiti.

The winners were selected from nearly 500 submissions from print, online, television and radio outlets.

To read the series, click here.Graphic: Martin Schapiro

Coburn's impactful investigative series — the result of an analysis of data on 4,000,000 temp tags issued by 10,000 car dealerships, plus scores of interviews — uncovered a vast underground economy for fraudulent paper license plates, which dangerous drivers use to evade accountability on the streets of New York City and across the country.

The series detailed a widespread scheme in which New Yorkers opened sham used car dealerships in states with weak regulations, accessed government systems for printing temp tags, and sold huge numbers of them illegally in New York City.

Images from the series. Clockwise from top left: Photo by Jesse Coburn, collage by Angel Mendoza, photo by Johnny Milano, photo by freedomnews.tv.

Coburn showed how motorists relied on these fraudulent license plates for anonymity while driving on suspended licenses, dodging tolls and tickets, and committing more serious crimes. These so-called “ghost tags” were used in shootings, robberies, and hit-and-runs, including one crash that maimed an entire family and two more that killed children walking in their neighborhoods.

As a result of Coburn's reporting, New Jersey closed legal loopholes that had allowed scammers to easily obtain dealership credentials and fabricate sales information to print and sell scores of the states’ temp tags. Even when scammers were caught, the fines were often minuscule, amounting to merely the cost of doing business for fraudsters potentially making millions of dollars selling tags illegally.

Regulators in New Jersey and Georgia have also shut down dealerships for temp tag fraud in the wake of the series, including some that were exposed by Streetsblog. Other alleged temp tag sellers uncovered by Coburn are now under criminal investigation. And New Jersey has proposed additional regulatory reforms that could shutter facilities as havens of temp tag fraud.

The Polk win is a rare one for a publication of Streetsblog's size. The non-profit newsroom in New York has four reporters and two editors. Coburn's series is the most significant project in Streetsblog's 20-year history.

The Polk Awards were established in 1949 by Long Island University to honor George Polk, a CBS correspondent murdered in 1948 while covering the Greek civil war.

When Coburn and the other 2023 winners are honored at a luncheon on April 12, they'll be in good company; the Polk Awards will also honor 16 of its illustrious previous winners with the title of "Polk Laureates." That list is a veritable "Who's Who" of American journalists of the past decades, including Nikole Hannah-Jones ("The 1619 Project"), Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (Watergate coverage), Sy Hersh (a five-time Polkie for exposés on Vietnam), Laura Poitras ("Citizen Four" on Edward Snowden), David Remnick (The New Yorker), Martin Baron (Boston Globe and Washington Post) and Christiane Amanpour (CNN).

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