License plate thefts are on the rise. How can you protect yours?

Switched plates could saddle you with suspicion for crimes associated with the new plates if not reported.

By Sarah AschApril 24, 2023 2:22 pm,

As new regulations and designs make it harder for people to acquire fake temporary license tags, some law enforcement agencies are seeing what seems to be an increase in the theft of permanent plates.

Matt deGrood has been following this for the Houston Chronicle and he joined Texas Standard to discuss. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Give us a sense of how big a problem this is in your part of Texas, the Houston area.

Matt deGrood: Well, I think it’s still early, so it’s a little bit hard to have a complete picture of, you know, how severe of a problem this is going to be. But at least with the data we have kind of through the first months of 2023, it appears that there has been an uptick in the Houston area compared to previous years.

Is it hard for law enforcement to spot plates that may have been stolen from another vehicle? I know that there’s now technology in place that routinely sort of looks and examines, tries to match the plate with a car and that sort of thing. But I just don’t know how much that’s actually used in the real world. 

I mean, I think it depends on the accuracy of reporting. I heard from investigators that, you know, their job is considerably easier if people, after noticing their plates are stolen, go out and immediately report them lost or stolen. Obviously, there’s a number of reasons why it might not proceed that smoothly.

Yeah, I can think of one reason, in particular. I mean, back when those temporary license plates were being used, there was a whole underground racket for those plates. And I would imagine, you know, if it were taken in one community in Houston, who knows where it would end up elsewhere in Texas, right?

Correct. And I mean, if you think about it, you know, how often do you really pay attention to your license plate when you go out to your car? So, you know, I think there’s a decent chance someone might not have report it stolen or even if you do notice that it’s missing, I mean, you might think it fell off while you were driving around town somewhere.

Is there anything you can do to protect yourself from this? I mean, usually these plates are held on with standard nuts and bolts or screws, right? I mean, those are pretty easy to remove. 

Yeah. And it sounds like criminals are pretty sophisticated in stealing these things where, you know, they’ll drive around town and, they might even swap out license plates using kind of similar-looking cars. You know, if they’re driving around in a white SUV, maybe they’ll scope around here until they find a similar white SUV to steal plates from. It seems like the things to do are one: try to pay attention to your license plates as often as you can. But it seems like you can also buy inexpensive tamper-resistant screws online, you know, from Amazon or somewhere else. And that’s a simple kind of inexpensive step you can take to at least make it a little bit harder for someone to steal your plates.

Well, now, I understand that law enforcement told you in the course of your reporting that this can cause problems beyond just the hassle of, you know, not having your plates. What are some of the risks of having your plate stolen?

Well, I think it becomes a whole lot worse if you don’t report it stolen and get new plates as soon as possible. I mean, if someone swaps out your plates, there’s no telling what sort of background those other plates have. I mean, you know, police could have warrants out on those plates, and so you could be driving around none the wiser and get pulled over pretty aggressively because it turns out you’ve been flagged for, you know, a shooting or something else.

And of course, if your plates are on some other vehicle that’s tied to the scene of a crime, you might be getting a knock on your door. 

Yeah, definitely. I think another complicating factor is if someone takes one of your plates but you don’t report them stolen, or if you report them stolen but don’t replace the plates, I mean, that could also get flagged and you could get pulled over for driving around with stolen plates.

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