With the cost of registering a car in California as much as $400, authorities are reporting a rash of thefts and other crimes involving those tiny but valuable license plate tags.
Local police agencies and the state Department of Motor Vehicles said they are combating not only thieves who scratch the stickers off cars, but more sophisticated criminals who create counterfeit tags using personal computers.
The DMV reports dozens of cases in Southern California in which people have scanned tags into their computers and altered the expiration numbers. Others have simply created tags that look good enough to pass for the real thing, said Ron Somers, a senior investigator with the department.
The DMV estimates that 2 million drivers are registered in Orange County, though it does not keep statistics on tags lost or stolen. But such thefts are clearly on the rise, especially as the state adds requirements--such as smog checks--to the registration process.
Earlier this year, Tustin police caught a man who scratched a tag off a car in an office building parking lot. Workers in the building witnessed the crime and called authorities.
"It happens all the time," said Tustin police Lt. Christine George. "I've had two tabs stolen off my personal vehicle in the past five years. But the hassle [of replacing them] was infinitely more annoying than having those darn things stolen in the first place."
Drivers whose tags have been lost or stolen have to pay a $7 replacement fee--and often wait in those notorious lines at the local DMV office.
In an effort to combat such thefts, the DMV last year began issuing vehicle tags with numbers corresponding to each driver's individual license plate number. The goal was to make it easier for authorities to detect stolen tags.
If caught with false tags, a perpetrator could have his or her vehicle impounded for up to 30 days and be responsible for paying for fees incurred plus the cost of properly registering the vehicle, Somers said.
The counterfeiters could face felony charges of illegally duplicating the state seal.
Only time will tell whether the tag thefts will drop when a 67% cut in the vehicle license fee takes full effect in four years. The cut, which applies to only a portion of the total registration cost, was signed into law last year.
So far, the license fee has been reduced by 20% and will continue to drop gradually over the next few years.
Here are some tips to avoid becoming a victim:
* Before attaching a tag to the license plate, remove the old tags and clean the plate.
* After the tag is affixed, slice it with a razor to foil any attempt to peel it off.
* For more information, visit the DMV web site: http://www.dmv.ca.gov