NBC 5 Responds

License Plate Thieves Target Neighborhoods Across Illinois. Here's What You Should Know

NBC 5 Responds has heard from drivers all over facing costly fines for crimes they did not commit, all stemming from a stolen license plate.

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It’s a growing headache statewide: Illinois drivers facing violations and fees they are not responsible for.

The problem tracks back to a rise in license plate thefts that NBC 5 Responds first reported last month.

Now, new records from the Illinois Secretary of State’s office - obtained by NBC 5 - show the areas that are hit most and what you can do to protect yourself. 

It all started with one driver, facing hundreds of dollars in fines he did not incur.

“‘This is not my car,’” Tomas Fernandez said he told Chicago’s Department of Administrative Hearings. “‘Somebody stole my plates!’”

It could happen to you and may take days before you even notice: License plate thefts in the Chicago-area have been on the rise in the last three years, according to records obtained by NBC 5 Responds.  Lisa Parker has more.

While it may sound like a straightforward conclusion, Fernandez's case took many twists and turns to prove.

Fernandez faced 10 violations totaling more than a thousand dollars in city fines for red light and speeding violations for which the Aurora resident said he wasn’t responsible for.

His license plates were stolen by a culprit joyriding and running lights all across the city.

“It was very frustrating because I didn’t do anything wrong,” Fernandez said.

Luckily, NBC 5 Responds uncovered proof that Fernandez was not the offending driver, and the city’s DOAH dismissed the violations against him.

Now, NBC 5 knows that Tomas is not alone.

Phillip Keeku from Oak Park contacted NBC 5 Responds after seeing Fernandez's story, sharing a similar tale.

Keeku said his license plates were stolen last year, and he immediately reported the crime to Oak Park Police. Months later, he received a ticket in the mail from Calumet City.

Keeku said he was adamant with Calumet City officials that he wasn’t responsible for the ticket, even sharing the police report to prove the crime occurred. He contested the tickets twice, but Calumet City officials said he had to pay.

After NBC 5 Responds contacted Calumet City, and shared the police report, the city reconsidered and dismissed the fine.

But Keeku wonders what other drivers would do in the same situation.

“How many other people just pay the fine because they don't want to deal with it?” Keeku said by email.

These cases are not isolated events.

Records from the city’s DOAH show the number of drivers in recent years disputing tickets based on stolen plates or a stolen vehicle more than doubled: From nearly 1,100 cases in 2019, to more than 2,700 cases in 2021.

While those numbers are in the thousands, it appears not all drivers are reporting their license plates stolen to state officials.

Records from the Illinois Secretary of State’s office show only 651 drivers have reported their plates stolen in the last three years.

NBC 5 Responds obtained those reports to state officials, broken down by the driver’s zip code, and found the city of Springfield, with its zip codes of 62702 and 62703 were hit the hardest: a combined 85 reports last year alone. 

To find out if the crime is happening in your neighborhood, use the tool below by searching your neighborhood’s zip code.

Type in your zip code in the Search bar above to see how many license plate thefts have been reported to the Illinois Secretary of State's office in your neighborhood since 2019.

The tool is based on data provided by the Illinois Secretary of State’s office, and represents drivers who have informed the state since 2019 that their license plate was stolen.

What can drivers do to prevent this type of crime? It may come down to your hardware.

In the city of Aurora, where license plate thefts have notably increased in the last three years, Officer David Guevara recommends stopping in your local auto parts store for anti-theft bolts.

Aurora Police Officer David David Guevara recommends anti-theft screws or bolts for your license plate that will make it harder for thieves to remove.

If your license plates are stolen, here are some things we learned that you should do:

  • Immediately call the police and file a report on the theft. Do not drive your car until you’ve reported the license plate theft to law enforcement. Oftentimes, police departments will not take reports of theft over the phone, so you will likely need to go in-person to a precinct or police department location, or have an officer come to you. This step is crucial in ensuring you’re not responsible for any future violations or crimes tied to your stolen license plate. Make sure to receive a copy of the report.
  • Check that your stolen license plate has been added to the LEADS system. This should happen automatically once you file a police report for a stolen license plate but it doesn’t hurt to check with the officer. Your license plate theft will be added to the Law Enforcement Agencies Data System, which is tied to the National Crime Information Center - a database used by law enforcement nationwide. That way if your plate is used in a crime in another state, it is logged as being stolen.
  • Notify your state’s motor vehicle department. File a ‘license plate revocation’ form with the Illinois Secretary of State or your state’s motor vehicle department. This notifies the state on record that your plate was stolen, and is the first step towards obtaining a temporary tag or new license plate and number for your vehicle. In filing these forms, you will likely need to include a police report documenting the theft, depending on your state’s requirements.
  • Consider license plate locks or anti-theft screws for the future. License plate security screws are an inexpensive way to fasten your plate to your car, and keep thieves from removing it. The kits include a specifically designed security wrench for removing the screws, for you to keep inside your home for future use.

Have a consumer complaint? Call 1-844-NBC-RESP or let us know here, so we can help.

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