Pennsylvania busts fraudulent license plate ring, costs taxpayers $2 million

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – The state attorney general’s office announced Wednesday an elaborate crime ring has been busted. This was an organized operation that trafficked fraudulent license plates, insurance information, and titles, and resulted in taxpayers losing almost $2 million.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro called the crime ring “Operation Car Wash” at a news conference in Harrisburg.

.”These license plates were used for illegal purposes across the country,” Shapiro said.

The crime ring included 12 people and 14 businesses that got the license plates fraudulently from PennDOT, according to Shapiro.

“They then rented these fraudulent plates for $400 a month to people who wanted them specifically to evade law enforcement, evade paying E-ZPass, and avoid paying tolls and parking tickets,” Shapiro said.

The ring rented those plates in New York City and other locations. Alleged ringleader Rafael Levi, 50, of Brooklyn, N.Y., is facing 486 charges. About half of them are felonies.

“For Pennsylvania taxpayers and public and private entities victimized by Operation Car Wash, it means that taxes were never paid to the commonwealth. It means that parking tickets and E-ZPass tolls were never collected,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro believes the crime ring started this activity in 2008. The investigation spanned two years and has prompted changes at PennDOT.

PennDOT communications director Rich Kirkpatrick sent ABC27 News the following statement:

We worked closely with the Attorney General’s Office during its investigation and last August started to implement changes to deal with these kinds of fraudulent activities.

We had been doing scheduled audits of motor vehicle businesses but now we have added unscheduled audits to review plate usage logs and check on insurance coverages.

We now verify insurance information supplied by dealers and we are checking with the Department of Revenue to verify sales tax and other identifying information.  We also now check with the Department of State to review quantities of plates being requested, to verify the number of dealer sales personnel and we look for patterns of repeated requests for additional plates within short time periods.

We also may request additional information, such as sales records, invoices and other documents.

We also are upgrading our systems to allow us to more quickly assess the types of patterns of dealer plate requests handled by messengers. The new system also will set thresholds which will limit additional plate requests without submission of additional information.  We are also working with the Turnpike Commission to implement Act 165 of 2016, which provides for the suspension of registrations for unpaid turnpike tolls.

The attorney general said there’s no evidence PennDOT employees were involved in the fraud.

“We believe it is possible that these schemes are happening at the current time in other states, and we’ve taken steps to alert the authorities in these other states,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro said this investigation is ongoing and includes several other states.

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