Opinion: Fake Plates are Hiding in Plain Sight on Facebook, Yet Authorities Do Little

Facebook is an epicenter for the fake plates market.
Facebook is an epicenter for the fake plates market.

You get a temp tag. And you get a temp tag.

For a certain kind of person, license plates are a pain. If you want to drag race, leave the scene of a crash, avoid bridge tolls, park illegally, or ignore speed cameras, license plates mean you can get busted. That’s where fake temporary tags come in.

These paper license plates are almost totally unregulated. The NYPD is well aware of the problem — Det. Thomas Burke appeared on NBC News last year to say that the plates even facilitate drive-by shootings. The Port Authority, according to that report, complained to eBay and Craigslist, asking them to quit selling fake tags.

fake plates screen shot 5

But today, the market has moved to Facebook Marketplace and fellow Meta app Instagram.

Finding these pages is easy. Maybe too easy. In a brand new Facebook account, typing the term “temporary” into the Marketplace search bar brings up “temporary plate” as the second hit (see screenshot, right).

Remarkably, most of the listings don’t even contain the term “temporary license plate.” Quite a few are entirely in Spanish. But Facebook’s algorithm is good enough that a search for that term will bring up plenty of pages. Other search terms, like “30-60-90,” bring up far more.

Many of the dealers refer to their products as “temp tires” or “temp windshields.” Someone with a sense of humor included a blurry image of a temporary tag along with a stack of kitchen china. (Plates, gettit? Ha ha ha.) But in the end, there’s no doubt what these people are selling.

Many dealers appear to be real Facebook users with spoofed locations. While the Marketplace shows them as being in Queens, Brooklyn, or Jersey City, almost all of the profiles I clicked on appear to be people in the western Venezuelan state of Táchira.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Those people, in turn, might not be the ultimate scammers. According to one dealer I chatted with, they are just middlemen. The dealer said requests are sent to someone else, who creates the custom tag and e-mails customers a PDF from departamentooffdmv@gmail.com.

It’s hard to prove that any one dealer is operating 100 percent illegally. There are online services that let vehicle owners register in other states like South Dakota in order to pay lower registration fees. Some claim to actually register vehicles with the DMV, and charge fees to match.

But these pages on Facebook list prices as low as $15 for New Jersey plates. According to the website of the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, the lowest price for registering a vehicle in the state is $35.50, with most new cars costing $59. Title is another $60.

Facebook and Instagram are especially culpable in this gross criminality. Searches on a series of terms on Amazon didn’t turn up fake plates. But even the most elementary searches on Facebook return plenty of hits, both in English and Spanish. There are accounts on Instagram like “@placas.temporales_2,” which has an image containing the text “Registration, License Plates, New Residence, Lost Title, Bond Title.” The absence of these tags on Amazon shows that it’s possible to crack down if a company wants to.

fake plates screen shot 2

Many of the ads claim that the plates are “100 percent legal,” raising the possibility that some people operating with temporary tags think they are following the law. Some offer tags in 10 minutes.

Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook, sent a statement in response to questions. The company prohibits selling fake documents, the company said. “We work continuously to improve our detection efforts, listings that are reported to us will be reviewed, those that violate our policies are removed.”

The company reviews listings through a largely automated process, the spokesperson said. “We encourage people to report suspicious listings by tapping the three dots in the top right corner of the shop, product or ad.”

Provided with a list of 31 listings for apparent fake plates, Facebook immediately removed them all. But six Instagram accounts with names including @bmore_temp_tags (“Temp Tags 150$ 60 Days, Hard Tags Not Inspected 275$, Hard Tag W/inspection 450$) and @temp_tag_cityy (“You need tags for your car follow the page I’ll follow you back or you can just hit the DM”) were left up.

The takedowns appear to have been in vain. A search for “30 60 90” immediately brought up another 15 fake tag sites, offering tags from Maryland, Virginia, Texas and New Jersey.

As with other illicit products easily imported from South America, the solution may have to come from the demand side. If there were a real risk to using fake tags, few people would do it, and these sellers would find some other way to make money online. Sadly, the occasional crackdown doesn’t amount to much. Citywide, through February, NYPD gave out an average of just seven tickets a day for “improper/missing plates.” That’s barely one ticket per borough per day. NYPD declined further comment.

To be sure, even going after fake tags won’t fix the whole problem. Many of the sellers don’t just sell tags, but also sell fake insurance and even vehicle titles. Fake vehicle documents of any kind weaken the already shabby enforcement system. But license plates, unlike these other documents, are sitting out in public all day. Getting those under control is the least we can ask of the state.

Steven Bodzin is a financial journalist. He lives in Queens.