Another Houston resident has been indicted in the Texas fake paper tag scheme that’s cost the state nearly $100 million dollars. Daniel Rocky Christine-Tani was arrested in Sugar Land and will appear in court on June 2, 2022.
Co-conspirators Leidy Areli Hernandez Lopez, Houston, Emmanuel Padilla Reyes, Houston and Octavian Ocasio from New York were charged in May 2021. The new indictment adds more charges against Reyes, aka Christian Hernandez Bonilla, who remains at large.
I wrote about the scheme in my blog post from May 2021 that highlighted the virtually non-existent controls in the system.
Internal controls lacking
Car dealers in Texas must obtain a GDN (general distinguishing number) license to buy or sell vehicles. The license application portal is online and a license can easily be acquired using fake ID documents, such as a driver license from any state. Once a dealer obtains a GDN license, they can access the online eTag portal of the TX Department of Motor Vehicles to create temporary tags.
However, there were a couple of gaping holes in the system. Firstly, a GDN holder can set up other users on their account who can create and issue temporary tags. Secondly, there are no checks on the vehicle, buyer or vehicle identification number (VIN) entered into the portal.
In that way, the co-conspirators issued 700,000 fake paper plates in a matter of months in 2020. Fake plates were sold for between $125 and $150 each, although more recently plates can be bought for less than $100.
New state law being to have an effect
The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles is a relatively new department, only created in 2009. It only began investigating title fraud in 2014 when it hired its first fraud inspector. A 2019 report by the Texas Legislature stated that the department had no fraud reporting tools.
The state passed a bill that became law in September 2021 to improve controls over paper plates. For example, the law requires all new dealer applicants to be fingerprinted in order to obtain a GDN. That has not yet been enacted.
The law also allowed the DMV to deny or revoke a dealer’s access to the eTag portal if there was fraudulent activity. Prior to the law passing, the DMW was specifically prohibited by statute from denying a dealer access to the database.
Limits have also been put in place on the number of tags that a dealer can issue. They appear to be having an effect.
At the February DMV board meeting it was reported that 17 independent dealers were part of an organized criminal group that issued 1.2 million buyer tags in 2021 or 25,000 a week. In 2022, these numbers dropped to a few hundred a week.
However, the criminal group is now moving onto creating tampered documents without using the eTag portal.
If convicted, each defendant faces up to 20 years in prison and a possible $250,000 maximum fine.