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.
The aftermath is ugly. Thieves going on joy rides with someone else’s plates can rack up violations and fines, resulting in a costly inconvenience for victims.
Worse yet, if you’re unsure of the precise steps to take after it occurs, proving you are not liable can be a challenge.
Tomas Fernandez of Aurora said he had no idea his plates were stolen until red-light and speed camera violations from the city of Chicago started to arrive in his mailbox.
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“It was very frustrating, because, you know, I didn't do anything wrong,” Tomas said.
The trouble started for Tomas when he said he sold his car last year. He says he pulled off his license plates and stored them in his garage, not giving them a second thought until the tickets started piling up.
Ten separate violations, with fines totaling more than $1,000, were soon in his possession. The violations occurred on days when Tomas said he knew he was home, and nowhere near the city. That’s when he discovered his old license plates were stolen right out of his garage.
Stolen by someone with a propensity for speeding and running red lights across the city. In video after video, recorded by city cameras last summer, Tomas showed us his plates on a car he says he’s never seen before.
Since Tomas was the registered owner of the plates, the city said he was liable, despite his pleas with city staff.
“[The city of Chicago] kept sending me the tickets over and over again,” Tomas recounted. “And even on one occasion, I wrote on it, ‘I already told you guys, this is not my car. Somebody stole my plates.’"
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Tomas’ situation is not an outlier.
In fact, data obtained by NBC Responds from the city’s Department of Administrative Hearings show in the last three years, the number of tickets dismissed due to stolen vehicles or license plates more than doubled.
Suburbs are also seeing an uptick. In the city of Aurora, where Tomas lives, Aurora Police said license plate thefts increased from 57 reports taken in 2020 to 82 reports in 2021.
Proving that you’re not the driver caught on speed or red light cameras is easier said than done.
In Tomas’ case, he said he was given bad advice when he tried to report the theft to his local police department.
“I called Aurora Police because we live here, and they told me they couldn’t do anything about it,” Tomas said.
A spokesperson for the Aurora Police Department told NBC 5 Responds there must have been a miscommunication when Tomas called, and that anyone whose plates are stolen should immediately file a police report in-person.
The fact that Tomas didn’t have a police report made his defense to the city of Chicago much more difficult.
“Finally, I called the city, asking them ‘What can I do? You know, because it's not my, it’s not my car,’” Tomas said. “They were like, ‘Unfortunately, you're gonna have to pay [the tickets].’”
After the theft, Tomas filed a license plate revocation form with the Illinois Secretary of State but the damage was done. Without a police report for the stolen license plate theft, the city declined his appeals.
And at first, the city told NBC 5 Responds the same answer. But we found one last option to prove that Tomas wasn’t the driver seen in those violation videos.
Through a Freedom of Information request with the state, NBC 5 Responds obtained records showing every vehicle Tomas had registered in his name. None of the vehicles registered to Tomas matched the offending vehicle in those clips.
The city of Chicago’s Department of Administrative Hearings agreed, and dismissed all of the fines.
“I love it. You don't know how this feels,” Tomas said, wiping away tears of joy. “It’s like you picked up this weight off my back right now.”
If your license plates are stolen, here are some things we learned that you should do:
- Immediately call 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 LEAD 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 (LEADS), 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.