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License to Steal: How toll booth thieves are getting away with it

(Credit: TND)
(Credit: TND)
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For decades, one of the bottlenecks when driving on a family vacation was the toll booths dotting the highways. Families would carry a lot of change to toss into the coin baskets. Or they would get stuck in a line waiting for a toll booth attendant.

The introduction of toll transponders was a dramatic change. In some toll locations, drivers with toll transponders could zip through the tolling gantry without having to stop.

The latest change occurred with the transition to cashless tolling, sometimes referred to as open road tolling. Where toll booths are gone a vehicle’s transponder is automatically charged. Cars without a transponder would have a photo snapped of the license plate and the registered vehicle owner would receive an invoice in the mail.

However, this automated convenience has led to the use of fake and obscured license plates that enable drivers to dodge digital photos. This challenges toll authorities who have the responsibility of identifying the actual vehicle owners who should be billed by mail.

“We began a very, very aggressive license plate violation enforcement, obstructed plates, covered plates, fake plates, devices to block the plate," Richard Hildebrand.

Hildebrand is the chief of operations for New York City’s Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. Nearly 1 million vehicles use its nine bridges and tunnels daily. The agency says it loses $50 million annually to toll evaders, making enforcement a high priority. In 2021, the agency caught 1,300 toll dodgers. Last year, they nabbed one motorist with more than 600 violations.

“The James Bond shade that comes down. We've had a couple of those.” officer Edwin Cabrera said.

Nineteen-year veteran police officer Edwin Cabrera has seen just about every trick used to hide a plate including gimmicks similar to the rotating license plate on action hero James Bond’s sports car.

We watched surveillance video of nearby Port Authority of New York & New Jersey police officers catching a driver using one of those James Bond devices in 2022. Last year, the Port Authority police caught another three toll evaders who owed more than $117,000 in tolls and fines.

Hildebrand warns that toll thieves are not just a New York problem.

“If it's happening here, it's happening everywhere. If it's not us that's getting you, our partners will get you,” Richard Hildebrand said.

Two-thirds of the states collect highway, bridge or tunnel tolls. We examined 17 of the 19 states using the EZ-Pass system to see how they were handling the problem of toll evaders. Minnesota and Georgia joined the EZ-Pass system in late 2021 and 2022, respectively, so we did not include them in this investigation.

We were shocked to learn many states didn’t realize fake plates were a big problem. This may be because most pay-by-mail is automated and state officials may not even be aware of how much cheating takes place. In some states, a license plate photo that cannot be associated with an actual registration is automatically deleted from the pay-by-mail system, which allows violators to escape paying without discovery. Some states don’t know what they don’t know.

The 17 states we examined may be losing as much as $305 million each year in uncollected tolls.

iWe discovered New York’s Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority had the most accurate data on the frequency of toll evaders. Using that rate, we estimate the 17 states we examined may be losing as much as $305 million each year in uncollected tolls. The money is badly needed to improve the nation’s highways.

The American Society of Civil Engineers has given the nation’s roads and highway infrastructure a letter grade of D. The group says 43% of the nation’s roads are in mediocre or worse condition. Nearly half of those are rated poor. And deteriorated roads cost the typical motorist an additional $1,080 each year in wasted time and fuel.

Cheating on toll charges is easy. We demonstrated this by installing a fake temporary license plate on a test car. It was indistinguishable from legitimate temporary tags. Then we went one step further and got an innocent-looking device that camouflages a license plate entirely.

In just minutes, we found and purchased online a license plate frame that disguises a plate from an enforcement camera. We ordered it, received it in just days, and installed it on our test vehicle. The device looks just like any other license plate frame by a police officer following directly behind the vehicle. However, the plate is unreadable by overhead cameras like those found in toll express lanes.

A legitimate license plate in the frame appears totally blacked out transforming it into a license to steal. Toll authority officers showed us a video of a vehicle using a black-out device like this one. Officers caught the driver.

Hildebrand said the toll revenue his agency collects is reinvested in New York’s commuting infrastructure to benefit all travelers. His office is offering to help other states to detect and stop the use of fake license plates and the devices that disguise them. The reason they are doing so is obvious, he told us. “That's our goal is to make it fair for everyone. Everyone pay their fair share,” he said.

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This investigation focused on toll evaders. However, fake and obscured license plates are can be used to fool red light and speed cameras. They are also used to avoid vehicle identification in violent crimes such as drive-by shootings.

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