Owner system

Fake VINs can still be entered into TxDMV system, board mulls fixes

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Coming out of an hour-long closed session, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles’ board of directors promised a solution to the state’s paper tag problem.

“We want to get it right,” said TxDMV board member Brett Graham. “We want to do things right for you. We want to do things right for the citizens of this state.

According to law enforcement, some of the changes made by the council are already working so far. Det. Mike Bradburn with Travis County Constable Pct. 3 says he used to see “25,000” fraudulent paper tags a week. Now it’s in the “small hundreds”.

“There is an immediate impact,” Bradburn said.

He says some scammers are now back to trying to produce fake labels instead of infiltrating the TxDMV system to print real ones. In 2018, the agency implemented new security features — like watermarks — to reduce counterfeiting.

The board said Thursday it hoped to vote on fingerprinting new and existing car dealerships in the coming months to reduce the number of fake dealerships created using stolen IDs.

Central Texas Sheriff’s Deputy David Kohler holds up a temporary tag he was able to obtain on Feb. 5 with a VIN he says should have been rejected by the TxDMV but was not. (KXAN Photo/Richard Bowes)

Wrong VIN, real problems

At the January 27 board meeting, TxDMV Law Enforcement Division attorney Brian Ge was asked if vehicle identification numbers longer than 17 characters, which is the norm, could be entered into his system. In December, Sgt. Jose Escribano with Travis County Constable Pct. 3 purchased a temporary tag in KXAN’s name, registering it at the Dallas Cowboys stadium with a dotted VIN.

Law enforcement says characters that aren’t allowed in VINs — like periods and exclamation marks — can no longer be entered, but VINs of any length can be entered.

“Has the programming been fixed so that only a 17 digit VIN, and this must be the correct format of an actual VIN, has it been fixed?” asked Board Vice-Chair Tammy McRae.

“Yes, it is,” Ge replied. “It was fixed when it first appeared several years ago. And then when we noticed a flaw that was reported to us in December and fixed the next day.

But Central Texas Sheriff’s Deputy David Kohler says he has evidence that isn’t entirely true.

“There is yet another issue with VIN verification that has yet to be resolved,” Kohler said.

Five days ago, he was able to register VINs with 15 and 18 characters — two below and one above the standard 17. He says TxDMV-authorized VINs would be rejected on websites like CARFAX.

“Oh, I didn’t know that,” said TxDMV board member Stacey Gillman.

“We don’t have VIN decoding software on the system,” said Shelly Mellott, acting executive director of TxDMV. “It’s definitely something we’re considering and we think it’s a great idea.”

Mellott says some states and older cars or trailers may use longer VINs. The council is considering VIN verification tools to verify that what has entered the system is legitimate — which Kohler says is crucial to keeping law enforcement and the public safe.

“[The car] could have been involved in a kidnapping or homicide or could have been a stolen car,” Kohler said. “Or he could have been involved in a hit-and-run where there’s a death…and you have no way of knowing.”

Two resignations in four days

This all comes at a time of uncertainty for the agency now with General Counsel Tracey Beaver resigning just days after Executive Director Whitney Brewster, amid a series of KXAN investigations and management unrest. by the agency of the state’s paper license plate problem.

Brewster’s name was still on Thursday’s agenda, reflecting his sudden decision to abruptly leave the agency. Kohler and Sgt. Jose Escribano with Travis County Constable Pct. 3 says it’s even more surprising considering Brewster offered to meet with them at the Jan. 27 meeting in an effort to improve communication with law enforcement.

“It was too sudden for me. Where did that come from?” He asked. “I have questions about that…I don’t know what to say…it was just sudden and you left?” Your advice ? I have questions.”

Escribano said he’s happy with the changes the TxDMV has made so far, but also worries that the agency’s sudden shakeups could slow the progress made so far.

He says law enforcement is ready to help the agency if asked.

“We’re not going to stop,” he said. “Until we fix it.”