Beginning March 1, vehicles registered in Texas will no longer need separate vehicle inspection and registration stickers. Instead, drivers are required to submit their car for inspection not more than 90 days before they renew.

The upcoming consolidation of vehicle registration and inspection stickers may seem like an unnecessary change to many Central Texas residents, but state agencies believe the move will help crack down on fraudulent or fictitious inspection stickers.

“Having one sticker will help simplify enforcement efforts,” said Department of Public Safety spokesman Tom Vinger.

In Bell County, fraudulent, invalid or fictitious inspection or registration stickers is not a large problem.

“We prosecuted 23 people in 2014 for sticker fraud,” County Attorney Jim Nichols said. Fraudulent inspection stickers are “a big deal in counties that have additional emissions testing,” he said.

In Williamson County, one of the 17 counties in Texas that require additional emissions testing, there are an estimated 5,000 vehicles with fraudulent inspection stickers, according to Deputy Mike Pendley with the Williamson County Precinct 4 Constable’s Office.

The number of vehicles with fraudulent inspection stickers increases dramatically in the larger urban counties.

An ongoing investigation by the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department in Fort Worth revealed a burgeoning world of organized criminal activity, solely designed to keep cars that do not meet Texas’ emissions standards on the road.

‘Hundreds of thousands’

“We are talking hundreds of thousands of cars,” said Terry Graham, spokesman for the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department.

In 2013, the investigation led to the closure of nearly 40 inspection stations, the arrest of 77 people and the seizure of almost $90,000 and 57 vehicles.

At the time of the arrests, the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department “conservatively estimated” that as many 20 percent of cars in the Fort Worth area were using a counterfeit or fictitious inspection sticker, according to Tim Canas, Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department’s chief deputy.

When the department initially undertook the investigation, law enforcement agencies were not aware of how complex the fraud had become, Graham said.

“I thought we were going to be busting guys making fake inspection stickers,” he said. “But a lot of it was licensed inspection stations that were putting real inspection stickers on cars that couldn’t pass an emissions test.”

Many of the inspection stations were working with a used car company, Graham said.

“A used car company would bring in an entire lot of cars that couldn’t pass emissions tests,” Graham said.

To fool the emissions monitor, the inspection station would run a hose to a clean car, one that could pass the test, and record that emissions data as belonging to the “dirty car,” Graham said.

“It was cheaper for the used car company to pay a premium for a fraudulent inspection sticker than pay to get the car up to code,” Graham said. “The big losers were the drivers who bought a car they thought could pass inspection and Tarrant County’s air quality.”

Economic impact

Because of the size of the fraud, and how long it had been going on, the economic impact of fraudulent or fictitious inspection stickers is hard to measure. The Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department estimated fraudulent inspections could be a $14 million business in Fort Worth alone.

The provisions of the single sticker bill, which go into effect March 1, require the county tax assessor-collector’s office to review inspection reports before issuing a vehicle registration sticker, said Bell County Tax Assessor-Collector Sharon Long.

“Like insurance, inspections will be reported to a state database that my office will be able to access,” Long said.

Vinger said when it comes to enforcement, Department of Public Safety personnel will “conduct routine compliance audits at official stations to ensure that standards are met.”

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