Millions of cars on Texas roadways have never undergone state-mandated safety or emissions inspections, according to a group of Texas law enforcement fraud investigators. This group believes that state-licensed inspection stations have been fraudulently passing many of these uninspected vehicles, allowing them to obtain temporary paper plates or even regular metal plates. With the state’s inspection computer system not set up to immediately flag stations engaging in fake inspections, the fraudulently-passed vehicles continue to be released, resulting in additional uninspected cars on Texas roads.
More than one year ago, NBC 5 Investigates dubbed Texas the “Paper Tag Nation” after uncovering how small, state-licensed car dealerships illegally sold temporary paper license plates, often to those whose cars would not pass state inspections. Now, some law enforcement officials are concerned that this issue is snowballing into the Land of Fake Inspections. This trend is highlighted by some inspection stations fraudulently passing cars for cash payments in exchange for inspections, facilitated by technological advancements making inspections easier to fake.
A seasoned investigator with a Travis County Constables unit specializing in license plate and inspection fraud named Sgt. Jose Escribano estimates that there could be as many as five million cars on Texas roads each year with fraudulent inspections that may conceal a plethora of potential safety issues. This estimation is based on an analysis of emissions inspection data produced by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, taking into account the percentage of inspections flagged for fraud by the Travis County team.
State-agencies that run the vehicle inspection program did not appear to attempt to halt fraudulent inspections at the very moment of occurrence, according to internal records obtained by NBC 5 Investigates. Escribano added that he thinks the state’s system is virtually open to fraudulent activity. Late in January 2023, NBC 5 Investigates cameras recorded outside a small automobile shop named Upscale Inspection for over an hour, as the team claimed not to have observed any cars enter or leave the shop. However, state emissions inspection records showed that during that same time, Upscale Inspections conducted safety inspections for 23 vehicles.
Escribano indicated that his team could detect signs of fake inspections without even setting foot in the shop. His team stated that they have real-time access to the TCEQ’s emissions inspection data, which indicates several red flags that suggest Upscale Inspections was performing what is known as “clean scans.” These scans are fake safety inspections with plugged analyzers that duplicate the results of a legitimate safety inspection. Newer technology can simulate a car’s onboard diagnostic system and guarantee passing results. However, when a car is “clean-scanned,” the inspector does not examine the vehicle’s safety features.
Once a car has a phony passing report, it can receive a temporary license plate or annual registration sticker. Fraudulent inspectors may earn millions of dollars each year by selling fake inspections that are also sold via social media platforms between $100 and $500 each time. Still, law enforcement officials think that there could be other red flags.
In January 2023, Telemundo 39 revisited Upscale Inspection, confirming that there was still no inspection activity taking place. There were even more inspections recorded in the state records — another 21 during the 75 minutes that Telemundo was outside Upscale Inspection. After questioning by NBC 5 Investigates, the Texas DPS decided to suspend the license of Upscale Inspection. In a DPS report available to NBC 5, it was discovered that Upscale Inspection conducted fraudulent inspections and that they conducted 882 clean scans as far back as early to mid-December 2022. Nevertheless, NBC 5 Investigates discovered that Upscale Inspection was still logging inspections in mid-January, over a month after state-system data confirmed the existence of false inspections at that location.
The Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality declined interview requests on why they had not adjusted their system to identify fraudulent activities. In a statement, TCEQ said it “has and will continue to work cooperatively with…Texas DPS” to assist with enforcement efforts. The TCEQ referred NBC 5 Investigates back to the DPS, stating that it’s the DPS’s responsibility to monitor inspections. The DPS declined to answer our questions.