A Game of Tag

A Game of Tag

After an increase in fraudulent temp tags, the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission began chasing—and catching—bad players

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In many states, a simple sheet of paper is all it requires to issue a temporary license plate—or tag—to a vehicle. That’s all it takes to make a vehicle appear legal once it’s purchased and leaves the lot, but some dealers abuse the system to disguise vehicles that have serious problems, including some that couldn’t pass a state inspection.

After an uptick in fraud in its eTemp Tags program in his jurisdiction during the COVID-19 pandemic, Jim Walker, deputy administrator of Safety Inspections and Business Operations at the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission (NJMVC), says he and his team needed to devise a plan to weed out the bad players and keep vehicles and consumers safe. Though the NJMVC officially transitioned from the paper tag system in 2012, fraud was still occurring.

“There are actually two types of fraud here,” he says. “There are non-licensed dealers using a printer and some software to create fake tags, and then there are the licensed dealers who have access to our database. They can create temp tags in that system but aren’t allowed to do so without a bona fide sale, which isn’t always the case.”

In October 2021, to catch these unscrupulous dealers, Walker’s team created parameters for each of its 4,000 state-licensed dealers and implemented them into an enhanced computer system that would automatically suspend all temporary tag privileges once the individual parameters are met. This then signals to the NJMVC to conduct an audit of that dealership.

“We arrange an audit so that we could go out there and look at the paperwork,” Walker says. “If they have the paperwork to back the sales, we lift the suspension of their access to the temp tag system, otherwise, we go after them for fraud at that point.”

The whole audit can typically happen in one day, he says.

“They either have the paperwork or they don’t.”

If they don’t have the paperwork to prove the vehicle sale, the fraudulent dealer is then referred to law enforcement for prosecution. Since the program’s launch, dozens of dealerships have been positively identified as trafficking in what amounts to fake tags, choking off the source of likely hundreds of fraudulent temporary license plates that are often used for criminal activity ranging from smuggling stolen vehicles to toll evasion.

While other jurisdictions haven’t yet reached out to the NJMVC to learn more about the eTemp Tag program, Walker is certain that other states could benefit from it.

“Other states should always poach the good ideas from other states,” he says. “But we’re still learning and will continue to monitor our work and adjust our process as we go.”

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