Phantom Vehicles: When a Car Has Counterfeit License Plates

June 21, 2023

By Jill K. Sanders, Esq.

Recently in the news, there has been a lot of talk about “phantom vehicles” and “ghost cars.” These are motor vehicles that have either counterfeit license plates, or the plates don’t link back to any identifying data on the driver. When using counterfeit or fake license plates, police may be unable to find the driver after they’ve committed a traffic infraction or crime.


How to Get Fake License Plates

During the covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, motor vehicle departments around the country were trying their best to accommodate drivers. Rules were modified while these agencies were closed and permanent metal plates couldn’t be obtained right away. As such, temp tags were easier to get and expiration dates on tags were being extended.

However, this resulted in abuse. Now, a buyer can easily find an ad on Craigslist, Instagram, or other sites for counterfeit and fake license plates. Typically, the ads list a phone number to call or text to purchase a temp tag. The buyer can purchase a counterfeit tag for about $50; these tags are completely fake and merely look like the real thing.

If a buyer is willing to spend a little more, like $100 or $150, they can purchase a temp tag from a used car dealership. However, the dealership may be skirting the rules in issuing the tag. The dealership may not be checking if the buyer has a license, insurance, or registration. While the tag is real, it may not be linked to the proper information on the vehicle and its owner.

Often times, the counterfeit and fake tags can’t be traced. If the tag is fake or counterfeit, there may not be any information in the issuing state’s motor vehicle registration system. As such, police may not be able to find the car or the driver.


The Financial Impact of Fake License Plates

So why purchase a counterfeit or fake license plate? Drivers looking to evade tolls and traffic cameras use the fake tags to hide their identities. This is becoming all too common in NYC.

As of August 2022, the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) reported that on its automated speed cameras, 7.38% of plates were unreadable. That’s up from 3.98% in December 2021, and 4.66% in December 2022. The DOT reported $61 million in tickets they were unable to collect in 2022, some of which were for vehicles with temp tags.

Additionally, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) lost $11.3 million in unpaid tolls in 2022 due to temp tags. Similarly, the Port Authority reported more than $40 million in unpaid tolls in 2022, part of which is due to the fake plates.


Criminal Sanctions for Fake License Plates

In addition to this financial impact, fake license plates can also be part of more serious crimes. For example, persons who commit crimes like shootings and robberies can use counterfeit tags on vehicles to conceal their identities. Vehicles with the temp tags may also leave the scene of an accident after injuring pedestrians and bicyclists. In such cases, the fake plates make it difficult for cops to do their jobs in finding the perpetrators of serious crimes.

For just having a fake plate, a driver can be arrested and charged with various offenses. For example, a driver may be charged with criminal possession of a forged instrument. Such an offense can be punishable by time in jail. This can apply even if the driver believes that the plate is legitimate.

Additionally, the person driving may be operating without insurance, without registration, and without a valid license. In these cases, the driver can be charged with additional traffic violations and even criminal offenses. These tickets can result in jail time, loss of license, and substantial fines.




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