Fake License Plates Take Over

The number of fake license plates in New York City has surged since the pandemic.



The problem of drivers using fake license plates has surged in New York City during the Coronavirus pandemic. Pictured is a street scene in Manhattan’s Chinatown district.

The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have been far-reaching in New York, and have resulted in yet another dilemma facing the city: fake license plates. 

The number of fake, obscured, or absent license plates on New York City vehicles has skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic. Data collected by the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) shows that the number of tickets issued because of illegitimate license plates roughly quadrupled between March 2020 and late 2021. 

Invalid temporary paper plates form the brunt of the issue. These temporary paper license plates are valid for 30 days in certain cases, with a permanent license plate required after this time. But enforcement of this 30 day-policy was loosened because of COVID-19 restrictions inhibiting access to permanent licensing. Combined with temporary paper license plates becoming available online and therefore easier to access, numbers of expired paper licenses swelled to the point of being unmanageable after the grace period. This was only worsened by opportunists who took advantage of lax inspection to sell forged paper license plates. 

Relatively few are being held accountable for these expired or fraudulent paper license plates, and numbers of other license infractions have increased as well. 

Officer Sanchez, an NYPD Community Affairs officer from the 45th precinct, has observed dramatic increases of fake license plates in his district. He thinks that numbers have increased because people do not want to pay for insurance. “It’s another way of scamming the system. It’s a way for people to scam, and not get insurance.” In New York, car insurance is mandatory for vehicle registration and subsequent license plating. A fake license plate can be a cheap work-around to avoid paying for it. 

Officer Sanchez says that fake license plates harm the community. “Let’s say you and I get into an accident, and it’s my fault. I have insurance, so the money for your damages is going to come out of my insurance. But what if I have no insurance? You won’t get money. It harms you.” 

The prevalence of fraudulent license plates on New York City vehicles is harmful in other ways. When people drive without acceptable license plates, city cameras cannot identify them. Because of this, they evade the tolls and tickets that are a crucial part of city revenue. Since the start of the pandemic, New York City has lost roughly $75 million in fines that should have been issued. 

Illegitimate license plates are also correlated to other crimes. Improperly licensed vehicles are often used as getaway cars. Shootings appear to be correlated with improperly licensed vehicles for this reason. 

Other crimes have spiked as well, since fake license plates allow drivers to avoid accountability. Speeding has increased. So have driver-related injuries and deaths

Fake license plates are also unfair. New York drivers are required to update and pay for their registration and licensing. It is inequitable for some New York drivers to dodge these conditions without consequences.

Officer Sanchez said that in his precinct, they are taking action. “We have four traffic officers [responsible for the issue, an increase from prior years]. We take so many cars off the street due to that fact.” Traffic officers typically punish drivers with fake license plates with a ticket and vehicle impoundment. 

New York City Mayor Eric Adams has promised to crack down on the issue. He wants the state legislature to give the city greater control over its speed cameras, so more people driving with fake license plates can be identified and properly dealt with. 

Mr. Adams is known to be tough-on-crime, and has instructed the NYPD to deal more diligently with fake license plates. He supports “broken windows” policing, which theorizes that clamping down on minor crimes (such as using fake license plates) can potentially discourage participation in major ones. 

The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have been far-reaching in New York, and have resulted in yet another dilemma facing the city: fake license plates.