More and more drivers are finding ways to get around without having their license plates seen, leading to tens of millions of dollars in unpaid tolls and tickets. NewsdayTV's Alfonso Castillo reports.  Credit: Newsday/Kendall Rodriguez; Ed Quinn; Courtesy Port Authority; MTA

Drivers concealed, obstructed or used bogus license plates to dodge 224,000 tolls a month last year at Metropolitan Transportation Authority bridges and tunnels, as well as an annual total of nearly 20,000 Suffolk County camera tickets, according to data obtained by Newsday.

Bridge and tunnel evasions were more than double compared with 2019, according to figures obtained through a public records request. Plate cheaters cost the MTA about $46 million in toll revenue in 2022, the agency has said.

Suffolk County, meanwhile, couldn't bill 19,763 automatic red light tickets last year because of obstructed plates, up 8% from 2019, according to agency figures.

At Port Authority crossings, tolls that couldn't be billed doubled from five years ago, to 191,368 on average each month through November. Those numbers include obstructed and fraudulent plates, as well as transaction errors, weather-related issues and plates not registered with the state Department of Motor Vehicles. It has said it lost about $40 million in total unbillable tolls.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Drivers hid, obstructed or faked license plates to avoid paying MTA tolls about 224,000 times a month last year, contributing to $46 million in lost toll revenue in 2022, according to figures obtained by Newsday. The Port Authority lost another $40 million in unpaid tolls.

  • License plate cheaters also dodged about 20,000 red light tickets in Suffolk County last year, figures show.

  • Some drivers and experts say the plate scams are an outgrowth of automated enforcement and rising toll costs and could increase with the introduction of congestion pricing later this year.

While down from a peak in 2021, experts and officials expect the problem will only get worse as toll collections ramp up with the MTA's $1 billion-a-year congestion pricing plan, which would charge most drivers $15 to enter Manhattan below 60th Street.

“It’s an epidemic,” David Mack, the Nassau County representative on the MTA Board and the chairman of the Bridges and Tunnels Committee, said in an interview with Newsday. “All you have to do is ride around … and you’ll see plates that are reflective, numbers are skewed, covered up, bent.”

Law enforcement officials and experts said that while some of these scams are decades-old, a proliferation of automatic toll collections and camera tickets — on buses, red lights and at state highway work zones — have given rise to a new crop of drivers seeking novel ways to avoid detection.

“I think that digital transformation is really what's driving this,” said Christopher Brockmeyer, chief deputy sheriff at the Suffolk County Sheriff's Office. Brockmeyer also noted that concealed license plates can be used to evade law enforcement detection by criminals committing more serious crimes.

Motorists are hiding their license plates both with low-tech solutions, like tinted license plate covers, strategically positioned bicycle racks and bogus paper tags, and high-tech innovations, such as automatic shutters or “plate flippers” that can be activated at the press of a dashboard button.

A Newsday illustration showing a license plate camera shield available...

A Newsday illustration showing a license plate camera shield available for purchase on the internet. Credit: Newsday

The increasing prevalence has been spotted by some toll-paying drivers who feel that if they have to pay, everyone else should, too.

“It's a matter of playing by the rules,” said Mastic resident Susan Gonzalez, who has been driving for over 50 years and has noticed the recent rise in plate-obstructing devices, including “very dark, plastic coverings.”

“Everyone has a fair share to pay,” Gonzalez said.

But other drivers said they understand why some would try to beat the system.

“Day-by-day, the toll prices are all increasing,” motorist Fahim Ahmed, 35, of Rosedale, Queens, said as he loaded groceries into his properly plated car at the Green Acres Commons parking lot in Valley Stream. “That's why people are hiding their plates. I'm not doing this, though.”

Toll booth phased out in 2017

In 2017, the MTA completed its transition to “open road tolling” — where drivers without E-ZPass transponders have their license plates photographed and bills sent to their homes. Other tolling agencies followed suit, and subsequently have dealt with a similar rise in plate scams.

When COVID-19 closed many DMV offices across the country, New York drivers were able to acquire plates online in other states, and agencies saw a surge in unbillable, out-of-state paper plates.

Data obtained by Newsday through the state public records law show that between January and May of 2023, MTA bridges and tunnels averaged 224,484 monthly “unbillable transactions” attributed to covered, blocked, altered, or otherwise fraudulent plates.

That monthly average — which does not include the busy summer and holiday driving seasons — is below the 2022 monthly average of 236,786, but 149% higher than the 2019 monthly average of 90,225.

The MTA estimates that about 6% of tolls it was owed in 2022 were evaded.

The Port Authority, which eliminated the last of its toll booths at the end of 2022, reported over 2.1 million unbillable transactions last year through November — more than double the number from 2019, when it had just over 1 million unbillable transactions. Last year through November, the number of unbillable tolls represented 1.9% of all transactions, more than double that from 2019, according to figures provided by the agency. The agency did not provide a breakdown of tolls that were unbillable because of concealed, obstructed and fraudulent plates.

The agency lost nearly $40 million in 2022 as a result of unreadable tolls, according to agency officials.

Tickets avoided by drivers

Drivers are also using fake or obstructed plates to avoid automated tickets, according to data compiled by Newsday.

In New York City, almost 5% of automated speed and red light camera activations in 2022 could not be pursued because of missing, temporary, or unreadable plates, a City Department of Transportation spokesman said. 

Suffolk County's red light camera program could not bill almost 19,763 tickets because of obstructed plates in 2023, about 5% of the 362,705 citations issued, according to figures obtained through a public records request. In 2019, 18,332 violations couldn't be ticketed because of obstructed plates, about 9% of the 201,062 violations. Thousands of other vehicles could not be ticketed due to issues like missing plates, obstructed paper tags, plates failing to match the vehicle or plates not found by the state DMV.

Nassau County spokesman Christopher Boyle did not provide similar data for the Nassau County's red light camera program. Newsday has filed a public records request for the information.

Suffolk County and some Nassau towns and cities also have rolled out automated camera tickets for drivers who pass stopped school buses. BusPatrol, the company that supplies and installs the technology on school buses, does not keep data for fake and obscured plates, according to spokeswoman Kate Spree.

While noting that his organization does not encourage or defend illegal behavior, Jay Beeber, director of policy and research for the National Motorists Association, an advocacy group, said the rise in plate scams was “unsurprising” given what he called the growing number of burdensome “revenue-generating schemes” targeting drivers.

“When people feel they’re being treated unfairly, they’re going to take action that avoids that penalty or that cost to them,” Beeber said. 

Robert Sinclair Jr., spokesman for AAA Northeast, said in a statement he “would hope state officials continue to crack down on this as it is unfair to honest drivers.”

Enforcement numbers mixed

Regional police agencies said they are cracking down on fake plates, but the ticketing and arrest numbers tell a mixed story. 

Although the MTA intercepted 50% more vehicles last year than in 2022, the number of summonses issued for covered or obstructed plates fell from around 3,800 in 2022 to around 3,200 a year, according to agency figures. 

MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said the drop in violations suggests enforcement efforts are making a difference. Through the first 10 months of the year, the rate of unbillable tolls at MTA crossings fell slightly, from 1.4% in 2022 to 1.32% in 2023, Donovan said. Those numbers include nonfraudulent transaction problems.

Port Authority police, meanwhile, ramped up ticketing. Police issued 5,044 summonses for obstructed, missing, fictitious license plates and toll evasion last year compared with 3,904 in 2022.

Nassau County had issued 3,247 tickets for obstructed, dirty, covered or unreadable license plates as of Dec. 12, 49% more than in all of 2022 and 54% more than in 2019. Arrests for fake plates fell, however, from 1,045 in 2022 to 244 through Dec. 12

In Suffolk, police ticketed 5,250 vehicles for fake, obscured and covered plates as of Dec. 12, slightly more than in all of 2019.

New York City police arrests for temporary tags in 2023 were down 19%, compared with 2022, from 4,199 in 2022 to 3,390, but up more than 187% from 2019, when there were 1,178 arrests.

Port Authority officials said the use of fake plates began to increase during the start of the pandemic, with a proliferation of bogus temporary paper license plates from Texas, Georgia and New Jersey. Recent laws in Texas to prohibit the use of temporary paper plates have led to a noticeable decrease in fake plates from the state, said Robin Bramwell-Stewart, the deputy director of the Port Authority’s tunnels, bridges and terminals.

Bramwell-Stewart also said the agency is cracking down with patrols targeting violators, using 59 license plate readers.

“I think regional law enforcement recognizes the difficulties of having these cars driving around without identification and it's going to take all of us to really get this under control,” said Bramwell-Stewart, who believes the situation is improving as enforcement is stepped up, and drivers realize “they're not going to be able to get away with this.”

Law limits enforcement

Even with increased attention on the issue by law enforcement, some drivers and experts predict more people will obstruct their license plates once the MTA's congestion pricing plan goes into effect as early as May. 

At a recent board meeting, MTA chairman and CEO Janno Lieber said the transit authority “can’t let it” happen.

MTA chairman and CEO Janno Lieber said the authority can't...

MTA chairman and CEO Janno Lieber said the authority can't let congestion pricing cause a spike in toll evasion.

“This is about fundamental fairness. It’s not right when drivers — some rolling around in Mercedes and Porsches — come to our bridges and through tunnels and skip out on paying thousands and thousands of dollars in tolls,” Lieber said at a December news conference highlighting a recent license plate crackdown operation. “That is your money they’re taking. That is the public’s money.”

In May, the MTA released an extensive report recommending that the MTA continue “crackdowns” on toll evaders. It noted, however, that without changes in the law, the agency is limited in the penalties it can dole out. Current law doesn’t allow law enforcement officers to confiscate plate-blocking devices, or even remove them from cars.

Summonses for obscured or fraudulent plates carry a fine of between $50 and $300 — a small amount compared to the costs a motorist could accrue regularly paying tolls, or being issued summonses for speeding or driving through red lights. Drivers without E-ZPass are tolled $11.19 at MTA major crossings, like the Throgs Neck Bridge and Queens Midtown Tunnel, and $17.63 at Port Authority crossings, like the Lincoln Tunnel and George Washington Bridge. Red light and speed violations come with escalating fines that begin at $50, and fines for illegally passing stopped school buses begin at $250 for a first violation.

In her last two proposed state budgets, including the one released last week, Gov. Kathy Hochul has sought to increase penalties for toll evaders to up to $500. Her proposal failed last year. 

And legislation recently proposed by the New York City Council would fine drivers between $500 and $1,000 for driving with an obscured or defaced license plate, and potentially carry jail time for repeat offenders.

'It will get much worse'

New York City Council member Robert Holden, a Queens Democrat who sponsored the city bill, expects the rate of plate scammers to skyrocket with the launch of the MTA’s congestion pricing plan, which he opposes.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way. So it will get much worse,” he said.

Mack, another congestion pricing opponent, called collective efforts to address the toll evasion problem “a joke,” because, without more police assigned to catch violators in the act, most will continue to get away.

Mack said more uniformed police are needed to enforce laws and deter violators. “Police … are not enforcing the law because they have bigger fish to fry,” Mack said.

It's not just the financial toll that has agencies concerned. Brockmeyer, the Suffolk chief deputy sheriff, said many drivers using these tactics may consider it a victimless crime, but fake plates are sometimes linked to serious crimes, like burglary, robbery or other serious offenses.

“Not having a readable plate in the digital world is obviously assisting in masking your movements,” Brockmeyer said. “Criminals are using that to their advantage.”

The "What to Know" box with this story has been updated to reflect the correct year that the MTA lost $46 million in toll revenue.

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