25 Investigates: Stolen license plates being used to commit, conceal more serious crimes

Criminals taking tags from cars that resemble their own and even buying plates at local market

BOSTON — A lost or missing license plate can be more than just an inconvenience; it can have major consequences for the plate’s owner, 25 Investigates found. Investigative reporter Ted Daniel reveals criminals are putting stolen tags on vehicles that are then used to commit other crimes.

The stolen tag is intended to throw off law enforcement, which will likely spend time and resources to tracking down the individual whose name is associated with the license plate instead of the criminals.

That’s what happened to Sandra Pickett, a New Hampshire resident who was contacted by several police departments when her plate, which she noticed missing a day earlier, was involved in a number of crimes committed in Massachusetts.

“Sometime in the middle of the night, I heard pounding on the door,” Pickett recalled of the two officers who wanted to question her about her car. “They’re like, ‘Ma’am, you need to show us some ID, you need to tell us where you’ve been with your car,’ and I was like, ‘I haven’t been anywhere. I’ve been asleep.’”

They had good reason to want to speak to her. Her name came back to a license plate involved in a police chase in Haverhill. According to the police report obtained by 25 Investigates, her plates ended up on a stolen car that lead police through several residential neighborhoods in Haverhill before driving onto I- 495.

“The vehicle registration (NH 3212879) came back active to a Blue Honda Insite [sic] to a Sandra Pickett. The vehicle I was pursuing was a Blue Honda Sedan,” the Haverhill Police officer who chased the vehicle wrote in the incident report.

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Pickett explained to the officers that it wasn’t her or her car in Haverhill but that it could have been her plate. Earlier in the day, after stopping to pick up a birthday card at a shopping center near her Nashua home, she noticed her front tag missing. She said she thought it had fallen off and didn’t think much of it.

“I honestly never thought of stolen license plates, but apparently it’s a thing that happens all the time. I just had never heard of it,” Pickett said of the incident.

25 Investigates checked to see how many plates have been reported stolen in Massachusetts. According to the Registry of Motor Vehicles 5,281 were stolen in 2020 and 1,379 through April this year.

“They could go days, weeks, months without realizing that someone’s taking their plate or the plate’s fallen off,” said Lawrence Police Chief Roy Vasque, who is also the vice president of the Massachusetts Major City Police Chiefs Association.

He said stolen license plates are often used on cars similar or even identical to the ones they are taken from.

“They’ll try to get it down to the very year if they can, that way when law enforcement runs the plate it won’t come back stolen, and it’ll actually come back to the color of the vehicle. Law enforcement may not think twice about it,” he added.

25 Investigates reviewed dozens of police reports and court documents that reference stolen license plates.

According to one federal indictment from September, a retail theft ring that hit high-end stores in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and four other states used rental cars and “at least three stolen license plates, so as to conceal the true registration of the vehicles used to commit the crimes.”

While working on this story, 25 Investigates learned of stolen plates recovered in Massachusetts that were allegedly bought at a Salem, N.H. flea market. Our crew went to the flea market with hidden cameras to see for ourselves. We found buckets full of license plates for sale at one of the stalls inside.

There were tags from Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire selling for under $10 apiece. There’s no way to independently verify if any of the plates we saw were reported as stolen. And it’s important to note that some people do collect, trade and buy license plates, particularly antiques, as a hobby.

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But according to the RMV Massachusetts driver’s manual, individuals who have canceled or expired tags should “bend and recycle or destroy” plates.

One of the easiest ways to discourage theft is to securely fasten plates with all four screws. You can also take it a step further with an anti-theft kit that sells online for only $14. It comes with special screws that require a specific drill bit or Allen wrench to remove, something the average parking lot thief likely won’t have.

Jesse Buday’s tags were taken off his car while at a repair shop in Arlington. The theft was caught on surveillance video. Buday said he’s not sure if his plates were used in any crimes, but he said replacing them was a hassle.

“You can’t drive your car until you get the temporary plates, and they don’t issue them at the RMV,” he told 25 Investigates. “You wait for them in the mail after you pay them.”

Pickett, the N.H. woman whose plate was involved in crimes in Haverhill, said it took her several days to clean up the mess created by the criminals who took her plates. Only a day after learning of the Haverhill crimes, she discovered her license plate was also involved in some “bad stuff” in Billerica.

To make matters worse, she said, she got stuck paying for the tolls the criminals racked up when they went from one town to another.

“That’s probably more police that I’ve talked to in my entire life. I just feel bad for anybody who has to go through that whole process,” Pickett said.

If your plate is stolen, immediately file a police report. The number will be entered into a national database, so if it’s used in a crime, law enforcement will know it’s stolen. You will also need to apply for new plates from the RMV.