New York police crack down on vehicles avoiding tolls with fake license plates

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NEW YORK (AP) — New York authorities are cracking down on what they call “ghost cars,” or vehicles using altered or forged license plates to avoid paying tolls and tickets.

A multiagency effort to catch them on Monday resulted in 73 vehicles impounded, 282 summonses issued and eight arrests, Gov. Kathy Hochul, New York City Mayor Eric Adams and law enforcement officials announced Tuesday.

Officials said it was the first effort by a new state and city task force that will be enforcing license plate requirements.

Monday’s operation involved some 150 officers using license plate reader technology, visual inspections and other methods to spot fake plates along three river crossings entering Manhattan: the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge linking three New York City boroughs, and the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln Tunnel, which connect with New Jersey.

“Today the Ghostbusters have arrived,” Hochul, a Democrat, said at a news conference at the RFK Bridge. “We’re going after the ghost vehicles. The gig is up.”

Toll dodging costs the region’s transit system an estimated $50 million annually that could be invested into modernizing subways and public buses, said Janno Lieber, CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

“That’s your money they’re taking,” he said. “That’s tax money.”

Police have seen a clear connection between the illegal vehicles and violent crime, Adams said. Vehicles bearing fraudulent or modified license plates -- or no tags at all -- are often unregistered, uninsured or stolen, he said. That makes it challenging to track down vehicles and their owners when they’re involved in hit-and-runs, robberies, shootings and other crimes.

Some criminals even carry multiple sets of plates and switch them out to avoid detection, according to the mayor.

“These 'ghost vehicles’ are a menace to our roadways,” Adams said. “We don’t know who they are. They disappear into the night.”

To be sure, forging or altering license plates isn’t new, said New York Police Department Commissioner Edward Caban.

But the city saw an influx of them during the pandemic, with people purchasing fake plates online that appear as though they were issued by out-of-state dealerships.

Caban said violators also use spray paint, tape and other materials to obscure or alter license plate numbers and letters. Still others purchase devices that can be activated by a driver to cover the plate just as their vehicle enters a toll zone, rendering the plate unreadable by fare system technology.