FOX13 INVESTIGATES: Misuse of ‘drive-out tags’ leading to unsolved crime in Shelby County

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — You’ve seen the paper tags driving down the road, but they’re also being tied to what some are calling “ghost cars.”

FOX13 Investigates looks into the problem’s scope and how they’re leading to unsolved crimes.

“We are having upwards of thousands of vehicles a year in Memphis and Shelby County that are stolen and being used in other crimes,” said Shelby County Sheriff’s investigator Sgt. David Mays.

“We are having a large portion of them, that once we recover them, there’s a remnant of a drive-out tag on it or a drive-out tag is still attached to it,” he said.

When a car is sold in Tennessee, car dealers access the Department of Revenue “EZ Tag” temporary license portal, allowing them to print a paper plate for a customer. Some of those dealers, though, Mays said, may actually be in the business of moving paper tags.

The problem, said Mays, is those tags are easy to copy. Many can be found online and on social media, illegally posted for sale, which is a felony.

We asked why someone would buy a fake drive-out tag.

“They’re using the vehicle to commit a crime,” Mays said.

Long lines at the Shelby County Clerk’s office have contributed to paper tag use. While there are many legitimate reasons for people to have temporary tags, it’s incredibly hard for police to quickly spot fake ones.

“It’s almost a dead end for us as far as investigating a crime,” Mays said. “It’s very frustrating because they’re using a stolen vehicle to commit other crimes, robberies, home burglaries, shootings.”

A QR code in Tennessee is supposed to help cut down on fraud.

Mays said more seasoned officers sometimes notice small imperfections in the tag, like an incorrect date, or faint or blurry lines, but that usually they have to stop the car for a closer look, situations that can also put officers in danger.

“If there’s a counterfeit, forged drive-out tag on the vehicle, there’s some type of other criminal activity that the driver and or the vehicles been involved in.”

Some states require VIN number matching on the paper tags, or even fingerprints matched to tags.

In Tennessee, the Department of Revenue is responsible for oversight of the temporary tag program.

We asked the department for a response to our reporting and whether they would consider adding enhancements to the program.

A spokesperson said the EZ tag program has “security measures in place.”

“Tags are printed on weather-resistant paper; each tag contains two identifying bar codes and a temporary registration printout for the customer to carry in his or her vehicle; each tag lists the dealership’s name and phone number and the customer’s information on the face of the tag; the temporary plate number is unique and allows law enforcement to see if it’s valid in real-time through their system,” said spokesperson Kelly Cortesi.

At this time, we are not considering any additional security measures. Tennessee follows [industry standards],” Cortesi said in a statement.

“In regards [sic] to concerns about dealers illegally selling temp tags, the Motor Vehicle Commission, which is part of the Department of Commerce and Insurance, regulates car dealerships. Citizens or law enforcement aware of potentially illegal activity should contact the MVC.”

Cortesi said the department has worked with law enforcement in efforts to “help them recognize fake temp tags.”

The department worked with the Tennessee Highway Patrol to “remind law enforcement officials how to validate temp tags through their systems in real-time,” including in west Tennessee, she said.