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CBS New York Investigates: Illegal license plate covers, congestion pricing and the art of dodging tolls

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NEW YORK — CBS New York recently launched an investigation into license plate covers. You may have seen them on the road. Some drivers use them to dodge tolls and police cameras.

The sale of those plate covers was banned in the five boroughs. So why did Amazon send three to our Investigates Team?

Amazon says it restricts the sale of tinted plate covers in New York. But CBS New York has obtained three more examples of the challenges the city and state face as they move ahead with a congestion pricing plan that depends on readable license plates.

MTA Bridges and Tunnels officers recently stopped drivers on the RFK Bridge for violations ranging from a tinted plate cover to a fake plate covering up a real one.

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CBS New York Investigates ordered three license plate covers from Amazon, even though they are banned in New York City.

CBS2

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When asked if he has seen in uptick in that sort of thing, Richard Hildebrand, the agency’s chief of operations, said, “We saw an uptick during the pandemic actually, and that continues today.”

MTA Bridges and Tunnels is the agency that will manage congestion pricing tolls.

READ MORENew York City loses $100 million yearly to drivers with obscured license plates, speed camera audit finds

“Do you anticipate that will increase even more?” investigative reporter Tim McNicholas asked.

“That we don’t know, but we have a robust set of tools, and we anticipate that will be used one way or another to enforce the same types of offenses for congestion pricing,” Hildebrand said.

Those tools include cameras and scanners that read plates, sometimes even obstructed plates. But officers also watch with their own eyes because traffic cameras aren’t perfect.

The New York City comptroller recently found the city’s system, which is different than the MTA’s, rejects more than 20% of the images due to fake or covered plates.

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“This merchandise endangers New Yorkers,” Corporation Counsel Sylvia O. Hinds-Radix said.

READ MORENew York City cracking down on illegal license plate covers

One step City Hall took was telling Amazon to stop selling tinted plate covers to New Yorkers, which the head of the city’s Law Department explained early last year.

“Amazon complied with the city’s demand to immediately stop selling these license plate covers to New York City residents,” Hinds-Radix said.

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Amazon listed license plate covers for sale on its site, but later took them down under pressure from CBS New York Investigates.

CBS2


Amazon put up notices warning it wouldn’t ship them to New York. But a few weeks ago, CBS New York found five listings for tinted covers on the site with no such notice. One even used a New York plate as an example.

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So we ordered three different covers and got them shipped to Manhattan within days.

“See, that’s disturbing,” City Councilman Robert Holden said.

McNicholas showed the covers to Holden, who created the 2021 law banning the sale of them.

“We’re gonna get them fined. The Amazon platform is gonna have to pay, and it looks like I may even have to up the penalty,” Holden said.

But some people try to cheat the system even without hiding their plate. That’s one reason the MTA’s sensors alert officers when a repeat toll dodger is detected nearby, which CBS New York saw in action.

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The MTA said a truck owned by a third-party delivery contractor for FedEx had more than $1,000 in unpaid tolls. Workers had to empty out the truck before the MTA seized it.

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Officers said one one day they impounded 10 cars and gave 33 tickets connected to $420,000 total in unpaid tolls and fees.

MTA Bridges and Tunnels officers say, last year, they recovered $35 million from repeat toll dodgers.

“Your vehicle will be taken off the roads until you pay your fair share and become a good citizen of the city of New York,” Hildebrand said.

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Cameras and sensors have been around for years, and the MTA has been installing similar tools in Manhattan to prepare for congestion pricing.

But some New Yorkers wonder if it will be enough.

“People already use fake license plates. I can’t see them trying not to find another loophole to get out of it,” resident Kevin Meurer said.

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“People will find a way to cover those license plates, easily,” Sebastian Santana added.

But CBS New York made it a little less easy. Amazon removed those five listings from its site and thanked us for flagging them.

The company declined our request for an interview would not tell us why it didn’t block the sale.

If you have a story you’d like us to investigate, email us at [email protected] or call our tip line at 1-646-939-6095.  

Source: CBS

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