AUSTIN (KXAN) – Following years of widespread fraud and KXAN investigations, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles on Thursday announced a “major design overhaul” of its temporary paper tags.
As part of its ongoing crackdown on temporary tag abuse – which ballooned into a $200 million black market and allowed criminals to hide in untraceable “ghost cars” – the TxDMV said after months of working with law enforcement on a redesign, it came up with a “more complex and secure” tag. The agency last redesigned temporary tags in 2018 but that proved ineffective.
The new security features will include a new Texas flag watermark, enhanced dealer descriptions and font sizes along with “numerous pieces of embedded data and text” that will link to law enforcement databases.
For security purposes, the TxDMV did not reveal all the new security features, many of which will only be detectable to law enforcement.
“With the support of our law enforcement partners, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles is setting a new standard for temporary tag security and design,” said TxDMV Executive Director Daniel Avitia in a statement.
Dealers will begin issuing the new tags on Dec. 9.
Data shows successes
Since 2020, the number of temporary tags issued in Texas have dropped, according to data KXAN obtained. It suggests recent fixes are working.
In January 2020, 422,154 tags were issued. That number jumped to 498,204 in January of 2021 and reached a high of 619,866 that April. This past January, it dropped to 375,070.
In September, it was 254,170.
Of the 30 dealer applications denied in the past two years, 27 were from this year. Dealer license revocations are also up. In 2020, 228 dealer licenses were revoked. In 2021, it was 229. In the first nine months of 2022, it’s 256.
The TxDMV credits improvements to measures the agency has taken along with the implementation of House Bill 3927 last fall. The new law allowed the agency to cap the number of tags that licensed Texas dealers can create. It also gave the agency the authority to immediately cut off access to its temporary tag database to any dealer suspected of fraud.
Most recently, following KXAN’s reporting, the TxDMV updated its policy and now requires fingerprint background checks for all dealers issuing tags in Texas.
‘Very easily manipulated’
Central Texas law enforcement deputy David Kohler, who previously testified before state lawmakers about temporary tags, praised the latest changes but still has concerns.
“I’m always optimistic about any positive changes that will help… law enforcement,” Kohler said. “I’m still very cautious of the fact that we’re still dealing with paper and tags that can very easily be manipulated using PDF software. And those tags are being sold illegally.”
Kohler showed KXAN a legitimate temporary tag he says he manipulated using PDF software to show how real and undetectable it looks. That tag had a hashtag in the license plate number and listed the owner as “Mickey Mouse” with an address of the TxDMV headquarters in Austin.
He said when the system generates a tag, it lets people save it as a PDF. He was able to use software to adjust it “to read whatever you want.”
“You still have the vulnerability of a legitimate paper tag being manipulated,” he warned, “and illegally being sold to unsuspecting victims in the state of Texas.”
He also said he recently took a photo of a car near Manor with a fake tag — which they could spot because “60 day permits do not exist.”
When asked if the newly redesigned paper tags are still vulnerable, Kohler didn’t hesitate.
“Everything is vulnerable,” he said.