A Honduran woman residing unlawfully in Houston pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud in connection with the sale of thousands of fraudulent temporary Texas tags.
Leidy Areli Hernandez Lopez admitted that together with her co-conspirators, she engaged in the illegal purchase and sale of fake state-issued license plates online, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas on Wednesday.
The 41-year-old will be sentenced by U.S. District Judge George C. Hanks Jr. on October 2. The wire fraud charge carries with it a maximum of five years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine.
As The Dallas Express previously reported, counterfeit versions of the paper tags issued by auto dealers have been used by fraudsters to generate millions of dollars over the past few years.
Last October, 51-year-old Octavian Ocasio entered a guilty plea to charges similar to those of Lopez in the same federal district, as The Dallas Express reported. Running what the district attorney called a “paper tag mill,” the so-called “Used Car King of New York” and his co-conspirators sold fake paper tags to purchases living across the country.
Due to this massive rise in fraud, Texas authorities have aimed to combat fraudsters by redesigning the paper tags.
As covered in The Dallas Express, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles released a new design featuring a Texas flag watermark, a modified and enlarged font, and embedded text linked to law enforcement databases to enhance control and shore up security.
Another strategy is to abolish paper tags entirely, which officials like Grand Prairie Police Chief Daniel Scesney are aiming to put into place, as The Dallas Express reported.
“Anyone with a computer and a printer can create a fraudulent paper tag,” Scesney said before state lawmakers at a hearing in March, according to The Dallas Morning News.
A Texas House bill submitted by state Rep. Craig Goldman (R-Fort Worth) addresses the matter by requiring car dealers to issue metal rather than paper plates. The House approved the legislation, and it is now being considered by Senate.
“These fake tags are on our cars, on our roads, all over the entire state,” Goldman told the House in May, according to The Dallas Morning News.
In Texas, driving a vehicle with false plates is a misdemeanor. Nonetheless, there have been some serious offenses committed by those with fake plates.
For instance, Tawny Solbrig’s teenage son Terrin was struck and killed by a truck with a fake tag in 2020, as The Dallas Express reported. She has aimed to bring awareness to the issue of counterfeit tags ever since.
Counterfeit tags are commonly used by auto thieves, with stolen vehicles being a massive problem in the city of Dallas, where crime continues to rage on.
Auto thefts have spiked year over year since 2019, particularly in the downtown area, as reported in The Dallas Express. There have been 5,067 incidents of auto theft since the start of the year, representing a 17.5% bump from the year prior, according to the city’s crime analytics dashboard.
As demonstrated by the arrest of Lopez, the FBI, the Texas DMV, and others have been investigating the conspiracy to fabricate, purchase, and sell state-issued buyer tags. The issue is nebulous because these transactions often occur online and use electronic payment services like Cash App or Zelle.
Lopez is on bond pending her October sentencing hearing, but one of her co-conspirators — also named in last year’s case against Ocasio — is still at large.
Emmanuel Padilla Reyes, who may be using the aliases of Christian Hernandez Bonilla or Noel Rivera, is currently being sought by the FBI. A reward of $5,000 has been posted for any credible information leading to his arrest. Anyone with information is urged to contact 1-800-CALL-FBI.