TEMP TAG TUESDAY: See How Easy it is to Buy a Fake New Jersey License Plate!
The dude barely slowed down.
Last week, inspired by Jesse Coburn’s epic three-part series on the massive black market for fraudulently issued temporary license plates, I went online and got one myself.
All it took was one Google search, a few back-and-forth texts with the anonymous dealer, and quick meeting with the recklessly scootering fraudster. Oh, and $100 cash.
First, the Google search. As Coburn’s stories pointed out, there has long been a massive black market for products that allow drivers to avoid tolls and speed cameras, or simply drive without a registration because their record is so bad that they can’t get one legitimately.
The market for these fake tags boomed during the pandemic, when many DMV offices were closed and people who wanted to drive — because, after all, this is America and everyone wants to drive — couldn’t get legitimate tags. The market for fugazi plates also grew as more and more speed cameras were deployed. In August 2022, when the city’s 2,000 camera systems went online 24-7-365, suddenly the Department of Transportation started noticing that more than 7 percent of cars that tripped speed cameras had plates that couldn’t be read, as I previously reported.
It’s likely that most were fake temp tags because, after all, they’re so freakin’ easy to get.
How did I do it?
I went to Craigslist (still delightfully looking like the tech industry stopped in 1998) and entered the term “temporary tag New Jersey” — and scores of listings came up. The first one I clicked had the headline, “Get Your Wheels ? Temporary ? Tags ? Temp ? License ? Plates ? Tag ? Plate – $1 (Brooklyn).” (All those question marks were actually check marks, but I have no idea why — or why the price was listed as $1.)
I texted the number on the ad and the seller offered me the option of fake temps from New Jersey or Rhode Island. I chose New Jersey because Coburn’s series focused mainly how that state’s lax rules, lazy oversight and minuscule fines have allowed shady used car dealers to flourish. I provided the vehicle identification number and insurance policy number for a neighbor’s car (he’s in on the scam), plus a fake name and address, and that was it.
The seller initially said he’d deliver the tag to my fake address, but I wanted something more adventurous than having a criminal visit me near my home. He offered to have me meet him at a Mercedes dealership on Shore Parkway in Brooklyn, which excited me because it would be a pretty big story (take that, Coburn!) if a dealership in New York was churning out fake New Jersey tags. Alas, that was not likely the case in this instance.
I showed up at the appointed spot — the dealership’s service gate on 25th Avenue — at the appointed time. And waited. And waited. Every half hour or so, I’d get a text message such as, “I went to lunch. I’ll be back in 15-20” or “I’m five minutes away,” which offered me no choice but to wait.
Expecting someone to emerge from the dealership, I instead was surprised when the huckster sped up on a stand-up electric scooter (seemingly out of nowhere) the wrong way against traffic and screeched to a halt right in front of me.
He handed me an envelope. I handed him $100. And before I could inquire about anything, he was off on the scooter so fast in traffic that I could only muse how ironic it would be if the criminal who is making our roads less safe by abetting speeders with fake tags were himself to die in a crash.
So is the tag a fake? You betcha.
Sure it looks real. It has six-digit number, plus the suffix “T,” in a font that reasonably resembles something official. But the dealer number on the tag — 43935S — is not a real New Jersey ID (real ones end in U for used car or N for new car).
The tag is fake. You can tell because the dealer ID number, 4935S, is not a real New Jersey dealer ID number. Real ones end in U for used car dealer or N for new car dealer. Also, when I scanned the QR code on the plate, all I got back was gibberish; had it been a real tag, I would have gotten information about the dealer and the car, as we’ll see in upcoming episodes of Temp Tag Tuesday (what, you thought this was a one-off? I’m writing a new song…).
Also, there’s no “Altimari Group of Paramus” listed in the Jersey business records. There is a John Altimari Auto Company, based out of Pennsylvania, but it did not return my call. (New Jersey officials, who have repeatedly been made aware of how easily real and fake dealers churn out Garden State plates, did not answer all my questions for this story, but confirmed that this tag was not issued by a genuine, registered dealer.)
So what did we learn?
As Coburn’s series on fraud temp tags showed, if my friend were to slap this plate on his car, he’d avoid speed camera tickets (temp tags, real or not, are unreadable to DOT cameras) and tolls (the tickets would be sent to the fake address I gave my broker; though eventually, with enough unpaid tolls, the MTA or the Port Authority would seize the car if they ever found it).
If a cop pulled over my friend, the officer would likely run the plate and possible discover that it’s fake, but who knows what the officer would do: give a warning, write a ticket or bust the driver for possession of a misdemeanor criminal possession of a forged instrument, which carries up to one year in jail. The NYPD claims it arrested 4,199 people with “a forged/altered plate” last year, but that number does not match a much lower one in a city database. In any event, there are a lot more than 4,200 people driving around with fake tags — Coburn’s story identified 109 dealers in Georgia and New Jersey that have printed more than 275,000 temp tags since 2019, most of them fake.
The NYPD also said it towed away 3,300 cars with paper plates in 2022, but the details of those cases are unclear: were those drivers suspects in other cases? Did they commit a vehicular crime that brought the car to the NYPD’s attention? Was the car simply towed off the street in one of the sheriff or NYPD’s rare sweeps? Who knows? (We asked the NYPD if it has officers cruising the online marketplaces and setting up buy-and-busts with fraud sellers, but the agency did not respond.)
All we know is that getting busted for having a fake temp tag is rare; in part three of Coburn’s story, he interviewed Adrian Mocha, a driver without a license due to his terrible record on the road. Mocha told Streetsblog that he’d burned through eight or nine temp tags before he was finally pulled over by a cop and he was charged with the forgery.
“I was running with temps almost a whole year, and they never stopped me,” he said. “I’m from Bushwick. Everybody there has temps. Nobody really wants to pay the parking tickets or stuff like that.”
For $100 and about 10 minutes of back and forth with an online scammer, why should they?
Gersh Kuntzman is editor of Streetsblog. Watch for future installments in Temp Tag Tuesday, a new feature that will continue … until it can’t anymore.