The theft of registration plates from vehicles has been a problem in Mount Airy in recent weeks, with at least seven incidents involving stolen tags reported to city police in just November and December.
While such crimes have plagued motorists since the early days of the automobile, one factor in particular — linked to money issues — might be behind the recent thefts. That’s a new law in North Carolina under which property taxes owed on a vehicle are being billed at the same time as registration renewals.
“That could be something that causes it, but that’s just speculation,” Police Chief Dale Watson said of the recent crimes.
Coming up with money to renew the yearly registration for an auto is a relatively small expense — $28 for passenger cars and smaller trucks — but when the property tax is combined, the cost can be more daunting.
Since proof of liability insurance also is required to buy or renew a registration plate, police say the thought process behind the tag thefts for perpetrators seems to be trying to find an easier way out from a financial standpoint. Someone who lacks the funds for insurance, as well as taxes and the renewal fee, might be prone to steal a tag from another vehicle and put it on theirs.
“They utilize it until they get caught, eventually,” Chief Watson said.
Earlier this month, a Mount Airy man was charged with possession of stolen property after being found with a license plate belonging to someone else. The tag was located during a Dec. 8 encounter in the parking lot of Ollie’s Bargain Outlet between the owner of the plate and the theft suspect.
At that same location in late November, another tag had been stolen from a vehicle owned by a store employee. The plate is said to have been placed on the vehicle of the person stealing it, who then fled the scene.
Earlier in November, license tags were stolen from two vehicles at Food Lion on West Pine Street owned by employees of the business.
Another theft in recent weeks involved the plates being taken from a pickup registered in Virginia, where both front and rear tags are required to be displayed, while the vehicle was at a residence on North South Street.
The registration tag on a 1993 Plymouth Acclaim also was stolen recently while the car was at an unidentified business at 907 W. Pine St.
Even utility trailers have not been immune from the tag thefts, with the plate on a trailer owned by Mount Airy Yamaha reported stolen on Dec. 10 while it was parked at the business.
Unlike the option of being able to lock up valuables in a trunk or glove compartment, thefts of license tags can be hard to prevent. But as with other crimes, simply being aware of one’s surroundings and attuned to any suspicious behavior in parking lots and outside residences is one measure recommended.
Seeing someone with screwdriver crouched behind the bumper of vehicle, for example, can be a common sight at a license tag agency, but is suspect if occurring at retail or other locations.
But unless someone is caught in the act, there is little police can do, although there is a means of later identifying a missing plate if it is displayed on another vehicle.
“That tag is entered as stolen,” the police chief said of a national crime database. It will show up if a suspect vehicle is pulled over or otherwise attracts the attention of a law enforcement officer anywhere in the country, when the tag number is run through the system.
In the meantime, the victim of a license plate theft is required to replace the tag at his or her expense, which costs $15, according to the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles.
A tag theft victim also is required to fill out a form and provide proof of insurance.
“It is a hassle and it does cost the victim,” the police chief said.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.