HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania's attorney general's office on Wednesday charged a dozen people as part of an organized crime ring that it said had made millions of dollars renting out fraudulently obtained license plates, primarily in New York City.
The people who rented the Pennsylvania plates — which were packaged with fraudulent insurance paperwork — allegedly used the anonymity to evade traffic tickets, parking fines and highway tolls.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro estimated the price tag in losses to Pennsylvania, New York and Florida at $2 million, and possibly higher. He suggested there could be similar operations in other states.
The ring, allegedly led by Raphael Levi, of New York City, used a web of fake car dealerships and transporter businesses it set up across rural Pennsylvania to get license plates, starting around 2008. All told, it obtained more than 1,000 license plates, and about 400 were still active. It then rented about the plates for $400 per month, or more, to hundreds of people, prosecutors said.
"All of this was a big facade, it was phony, it wasn't real," Shapiro said. "There weren't these big storefronts where legitimate operations were going on, and then in the back maybe some illegitimate business practices. This was all constructed as one big fraud."
Each plate was registered to a business associated with Levi, authorities said. When law enforcement, parking authorities or toll operators mailed fines, notices or other violations, it went to post office boxes or addresses associated with the businesses within the Levi organization, they said. The Levi organization ignored the violations, they said.
They also used fake auto insurance cards, so that when an accident happened and other motorists filed claims, no payment resulted, Shapiro said.
Shapiro would not say whether users of the rented plates will be charged, but said the investigation is ongoing and that the state will seek restitution. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is taking steps to address shortcomings that were exploited by the ring, including limiting the number of license plates that are issued to one business before an internal review is triggered, Shapiro said.
A lawyer for Levi did not return requests for comment Wednesday evening. Levi and 11 other defendants were booked in suburban Harrisburg on Wednesday, the attorney general's office said.
Levi was ordered held on $600,000 bail, an attorney general's office spokesman said.
A stolen notary seal and falsified insurance policy paperwork helped extend schemes that also included washing car titles to evade loans and selling cars with rolled-back odometers to pump up resale values, the attorney general's office said. The ring evaded paying state sales tax by reporting false vehicle trade-in values, it said.