These Activists Target Drivers Who Tamper With License Plates

Good morning. It’s Wednesday. We’ll look at two transit-related stories. First, license-plate tampering by drivers who don’t want to pay bridge and tunnel tolls — and people who take it upon themselves to make plates on tamperers’ cars readable again. Then, a cyberhack on the taxi dispatch system at Kennedy International Airport.

Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

Some drivers are tampering with their license plates to evade speed and toll cameras. This costs New York agencies big money — $100 million a year in lost tolls and fines. As if tag-tampering weren’t enough of a story on its own, my colleague Corey Kilgannon found that citizen enforcers are trying to make things right. They go around fixing defaced plates, one by one, when they see them. I asked him to explain.

What do drivers who want to evade the cameras do to their license plates?

The camera dodgers are nothing if not resourceful in their efforts to avoid detection by speed and red-light cameras and also bridge and tunnel tolls.

They cover their plates with camera-proof screens and sprays, and also with stickers, tape, surgical masks and plastic bags. Some scrape off letters or numbers. Some paste on leaves to obscure them. Others use retractor mechanisms that pull their plates out of sight as they approach toll cameras. And there’s the old scam with temporary paper tags, largely from out of state and often fake or expired.

All this has prompted citizen inspectors who say the authorities do too little to ticket such scofflaws to take it upon themselves to do the job. They hunt for defaced plates and post their exploits online.

Keep in mind that drivers with E-ZPasses pay tolls automatically, but those without them are billed by mail according to their license plates, which are photographed as they pass.

How widespread is this kind of tampering? How much does it cost in missed fines?

Both the authorities and the citizen monitors agree on this point: It is widespread.

When you consider that tolls for a car on some tunnels and bridges can reach $16, and total revenue for New York bridges and tunnels is in the billions, there’s a lot of money at stake, including the $50 million a year that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority says it loses. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey says it misses out on $40 million.

New York City’s share is smaller — $8 million. That’s 4 percent of the $200 million that the city collected from speed and red-light cameras in 2021, which is the percentage of camera activations that officials say are missed by unreadable plates. For what it’s worth, that 4 percent was far above annual prepandemic averages of well under 1 percent.

But there’s also a human toll, many advocates say. They maintain that illegal plates encourage dangerous driving in a city where at least 125 pedestrians and cyclists have been killed this year.

Don’t the authorities look for plates that have been altered?

They do, but the question really is: Are they are doing enough?

City and state agencies have announced various crackdowns in recent years, partly to remind drivers with altered plates that they can be fined hundreds of dollars and even arrested.

The M.T.A. conducted a sting operation in September in which officers seized 17 cars whose owners owed more than $530,000 in tolls and fines.

As for the Police Department, summonses for illegal plates have dropped from last year. The police have given out far fewer plate citations during traffic stops this year, issuing only 5,490, compared with 14,000 over the same period last year. But they have issued more summonses to parked vehicles this year.

Advocates say that police and other city officials and workers, rather than denouncing scofflaws and enforcing the license plate laws, are some of the most brazen offenders. Many advocates say they frequently observe high concentrations of illegal plates around courthouses and police precincts. The Police Department denies this. A police official told me that the N.Y.P.D inspects officers’ cars and that officers who violate the law are disciplined and held accountable.

Haven’t some “citizen enforcers” run into problems with the police?

There have been instances where the police have ended up going after the whistle-blowers.

This happened last month to Adam White, a lawyer and safe-streets advocate who keeps an eye out for problematic plates while biking between his home in Brooklyn and his office in Lower Manhattan.

After he pulled an object off the license plate of an S.U.V. parked in Brooklyn, the driver hopped out and called the police, who promptly arrested White on a charge of criminal mischief.

The charge was later dropped but not before White became a cause célèbre in safe-street advocacy circles.

Most of the time, the citizen enforcers approach cars that are parked and empty, but sometimes drivers have confronted the inspectors. Inspectors I spoke with said they had been attacked verbally and even physically.

White, for example, said that before the incident that led to his arrest, he had been told countless times on social media to mind his own business. He said he once got punched in the head and had his glasses broken after he took a photograph of a reckless driver’s license plate in traffic.

And Tony Melone, a Brooklyn musician and street-safety advocate, says has called 311 hundreds of times to report a variety of driver offenses.

In March, a driver he yelled at for blocking a bike lane chased him for blocks until a passenger jumped out and knocked him unconscious, breaking his leg. The car was captured on surveillance video. But because its plate was covered with a camera-proof screen, the driver could not be identified, Melone said.


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The hackers who let taxis jump the line at J.F.K.

Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Prosecutors say “shop open” and “shop closed” became code words for cabdrivers at Kennedy International Airport. “Shop open” meant that the drivers could pay $10 to jump the line in the lot where cabs wait, often for hours. “Shop closed” meant that the hackers who made it possible had gone offline for the day, prosecutors said.

An indictment said the hackers — Daniel Abayev and Peter Leyman, both 48 — had worked with Russians to break into the airport’s cab dispatching system. The indictment said their scheme then used the system to move specific taxis to the front of the line, ahead of taxis that had gotten there earlier.

The hackers “enabled as many as 1,000 fraudulently expedited taxi trips a day,” the indictment said. They eventually moved more than $100,000 to the Russians who collaborated with them.

The scheme appears to have been an open secret among taxi drivers at J.F.K. The indictment said that Abayev and Leyman communicated with cabbies through group-chat threads, including instructions about ways to avoid detection.

“DEAR DRIVERS !!!! PLEASE!!!! Do not wait at the gas station in JFK,” one message said before listing other locations where drivers should not wait. Drivers had to be “very very” careful, the message added, followed by two emojis of police officers.


Mango with Tajín

Dear Diary:

Some friends and I went to Coney Island late one Friday at the end of August and did all the Coney Island things: the Cyclone, the Wonder Wheel, the boardwalk.

We ate Mexican street corn and kebabs and mango with Tajín, took off our shoes and ran in the surf, got pierogi with serem from a cafe in Brighton Beach and Italian ice from Nathan’s.

Watching the weekly fireworks from a lifeguard’s chair, I told my friends that the view — the lights and the skyline and the Ferris wheel in summer — never gets old.

It was 27 stops on the F to get home. Just before we reached Church Avenue, the train slowed to a stop and the lights flickered out.

Everything went silent.

“So,” I said to one of my friends, a film student, “did you ever see ‘The Taking of Pelham 123’?”

I heard people at both ends of the car start to laugh.

We got home all right.

— J.C. Paczkowski

Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.

Glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.

Melissa Guerrero, Morgan Malget, Nate Schweber, Ed Shanahan and Benjamin Weiser contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team [email protected].


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