fake tags are a real problem


As a bicyclist I am always ready to believe the worst about drivers. Drivers are why I’m woken up by gunning engines in the middle of the night. Drivers are why I have titanium screwed into my collarbone. Drivers! That I bring my children to school by bicycle every weekday morning has only raised the stakes and, along with it, my ire.

Vision Zero is a failure

Despite this, I have been immersed in enough safe streets rhetoric to be convinced that making our streets less deadly is about how we build, not who we blame. Incompetence and inattention are inevitable human foibles. We know drivers will make mistakes and it is more productive to ameliorate those mistakes’ effects than to obsess over how we will punish them.

I buy this, with one exception. I get angry at drivers who do not try. The ones who don’t accept that they have a responsibility to others and that they consequently must make an effort. The ones who selfishly exempt themselves from the rules. The ones who choose lawlessness. I get very angry at them.

And recent years have provided a new signal that such a driver is near: the fake temporary tag. All of a sudden, it seemed, paper tags were everywhere. Often they were on credible-seeming vehicles–ones that looked new, or at least newly washed. But sometimes the expiration date had passed. And as the months wore on, they started showing up on increasingly-implausible beaters.

photo courtesy of Matt Ficke

These days it’s obvious: fake tags are part of the scofflaw trinity, along with defaced plates and opaque plate covers.

The reason this trend started is equally obvious: automated traffic enforcement, or ATE. Speed cameras annually collect more than $100 million in fines from area drivers. And that’s just D.C.’s cameras! Compared to the era that preceded them, these systems have made enforcement of traffic laws shockingly consistent. They have made a difference for road safety, too, as even AAA–a reliably brash proponent of motorists’ most chauvinistic impulses–has grudgingly admitted.

The relative scale of automated enforcement is immense. Enforcement of traffic laws by humans is, by comparison, so constrained as to be irrelevant. ATE dramatically increases the frequency with which drivers are punished.

data via

ATE transformed citations from an occasional episode of motorist misfortune–not so different from a flat tire–to a persistent nuisance. But ATE systems work by connecting a license plate back to a driver. Sever that connection and the citation will never find its target. Some drivers have realized this and taken steps to end the frustration that ATE causes them.

I think this is easy to understand. Spend any time near D.C. roads, and it’s easy to see, too. But why isn’t anyone doing anything about it?

DC Has Given Up

The city convened a task force about fake tags, which did a study, and then decided not to do anything. Why?

Although the Task Force convened to determine options available to move forward, with the assistance of the Mayor’s Office of Racial Equity, it was ultimately determined not to move forward with many of the initial ideas due to the possible negative impact on people of color. Therefore, law enforcement continues to enforce fake temporary tags using their existing processes.

This might sound bizarre, but it actually makes a sad kind of sense. D.C.’s traffic cameras are more prevalent in Black neighborhoods.

That’s because those neighborhoods have the most dangerous streets. Walkable neighborhoods are desirable, so they’re expensive, so they’re for the rich. Poor neighborhoods are where you put freeways. The people living in Wards 7 and 8 are stuck with an auto-focused streetscape, and so of course they reconcile themselves to it. It is understandable that they find it deeply annoying when aging hipster bike enthusiasts characterize this as a kind of false consciousness during controversies like the one over the 9th Street bike lane. But it is nevertheless true that in D.C. the residents of our poorest wards, who are disproportionately people of color, are often both cars’ staunchest boosters and most deeply suffering victims.

The pandemic may have helped normalize the use of fake tags. The Department of Motor Vehicles got backlogged, which led to forbearance for offenses like having invalid tags. It’s unreasonable to punish someone if the city has made compliance impossible, after all. This led to a multi-year period during which the likelihood of being punished for using fake tags dropped, which can’t have hurt their popularity.

Looking at tag-related citations as a percent of each MPD district’s total citations provides a suggestive window onto the issue’s priority in different parts of the city:

data via

I can think of at least two distasteful explanations for the pattern in this graph. Either the use of fake tags spread across the city after an initial concentration in the Seventh District, flattening its local priority; or reduced enforcement during the pandemic normalized the use of fake tags to such an extent that the previous level of vigor applied to the problem by MPD in the Seventh became untenable. It’s one thing to hassle young men in fast cars over something; when everyone’s doing it, enforcement gets more complicated. There are other possibilities, of course (maybe a district commander who hates fake tags as much as me retired because of COVID?). But I think normalization is a plausible reading.

I think that partly because the city seems to be losing its will to punish bad drivers in general (with notable help from the courts and activists). It’s hard not to feel like we’ve decided that it’s no longer worth trying to correct this class of misbehavior. Driving is too important to punish people for doing it dangerously.


The D.C. DMV has stopped issuing long-lived paper tags, at least. I guess that’s something. But it hasn’t made any difference, as a quick look at Facebook Marketplace demonstrates.

Note the sponsored posts–the company’s making money off of this.

(An aside: hanging around D.C. bike circles left me unsurprised to see illegal activity on Facebook Marketplace–it’s the go-to venue for bike thieves these days–but having finally looked closer, the level of obvious criminality is genuinely jaw-dropping. Here’s someone with a garage full of ten-gallon buckets of Tide, Downy, and Gain, offering home delivery! It’s amazing that none of them popped open when they fell off the back of that truck. I didn’t go looking for this listing, it just came up as a bad search result match as I looked for fake tag sellers. Who knows what else you’d find if you really dug.)

Fake tag sellers are very easy to find. Here are the first ten I came across:

Prices ranged from $25-65, and most offered tags for 60 days, though there are some 30- and 90-day options as well. The reuse of titles and illustrations (I’m particularly fond of the stock photo of a DMV building) suggests that some individual tag entrepreneurs might be behind multiple listings. But why would they list multiple prices? That will have to remain an SEO mystery for another day. The inclusion of wheels as an offering also merits attention, given the current popularity of wheel theft. But let’s try to stay focused.

I decided to take one of these services for a spin. All of them are tied to transparently fake Facebook accounts, which makes it hard to choose. I decided to randomly select one of the listings not associated with the profile of an implausibly buxom woman (I was risking enough trouble already) and see if I couldn’t do business. “Jorge” was very helpful but alas, not as ready to incriminate himself as I would’ve liked. Otherwise, five stars. Shoutout to too, by the way.

It was interesting to see Enterprise Rent-a-Car implicated! That makes me wonder if these aren’t actual credentials obtained fraudulently (perhaps via a retail employee with a side hustle), rather than just some guy with Photoshop. But someone in an AG’s office should be figuring this out, not me.

To be clear: all the info I provided except my name is make-believe

fake tags matter

If you have read this far, you’re probably starting to worry that I’m crazy. I spent $55 just to make myself mad! I admit that it’s at least a little nuts.

But I think this stuff matters. A driver who believes they are entitled to exempt themselves from responsibility portends bad things. They might drive more recklessly. They might not carry insurance. They might ruin someone’s life.

I think D.C., Virginia, and Maryland should look at this problem again. I think they should sue Facebook over its failure to police Marketplace. I think they should figure out who owns that CashApp account. And I think they should give drivers with fake tags some good reasons not to use them.

I realize that punishing people, especially vulnerable people, is distasteful. But what I see from city leadership and my fellow citizens suggests they’re in denial about the tragedy that comes from cavalier misuse of our roads. It is inexcusable to ask the families who experience those tragedies to pay that price just so that we can avoid facing our own discomfort.

About the author

Tom Lee


By Tom Lee