A popular breed of license plate shield is allowing motorists to evade tickets and tolls even though the plastic cover appears transparent.
The "PhotoMaskCover" and similar products polarize light so that plate numbers and letters are clearly visible from directly behind a car. But when viewed from an angle, the characters are obscured. Because cameras at toll bridges, tunnels, and intersections are often positioned from a side angle, the plate covers can help scofflaws slip through E-ZPass lanes and run red lights without fear of being tracked down for their transgressions.
"What they do is they direct the light at the plate and they obscure it from where they think the reader is going to be," said Port Authority Captain Ron Shindel, who is in charge of security at the George Washington Bridge. Shindel said his officers have made at least a dozen arrests for illegally covered license plates at bridge toll stations in the last thirty days.
The I-Team found the polarizing plate covers on vehicles in New Jersey and New York, despite laws in both states that prohibit the obscuring of license plates. In some cases even cars and trucks displaying law enforcement placards had the illegal plate covers.
Last month the I-Team spotted a black SUV parked outside the NYPD 103rd Precinct in Queens with the illegal covers obscuring both front and rear license plates. On the dashboard, a makeshift placard read "PO DiFalco 103 Pct Shield 24212"
NYPD spokesman Sgt. Brendan Ryan sent the I-Team a statement saying "this matter is under internal review."
Attempts to reach Officer DiFalco were unsuccessful.
The I-Team also spotted PhotoMaskCovers or similar devices on a Jeep displaying an FDNY placard and a Chrysler parked in a spot reserved for employees of the Nassau County Police Department.
Neither Nassau County Police nor the FDNY provided any response to questions about the illegally covered license plates.
In an email to the I-Team, a representative of the company that sells the PhotoMaskCover defended the business as a way for citizens to protect themselves against false red light tickets that they have "no realistic way to fight."
"We do not advocate illegal activity," reads the statement, which is attributed only to "PhotoMaskCover."
"What our product is designed to do is to stop the illegal and wrongful issuing of tickets."
The statement goes on to explain that the act of covering a license plate with clear plastic is not illegal if the vehicle is not driven on public streets.
"There is nothing illegal about a piece of plastic or license plate cover. The illegal part would be putting it on a vehicle that is on public roads where it is prohibited."
Despite that disclaimer, the PhotoMaskCover website suggests its product is "100% effective against photo radar." Indeed, the company advertises a "No Ticket Guarantee" in bold lettering.
Operators of red light cameras say it's nearly impossible to effectively shield a license plate from their lenses and software.
Charles Territo, a spokesman for American Traffic Solutions, a firm that runs red light cameras for about three hundred municipalities, says even if some numbers and letters are obscured on a license plate it is possible to identify the vehicle owner by cross referencing the remaining characters with the make, model, and color of the car or truck.
"Ultimately it is a very rare occurrence whenever our cameras or our processors are unable to match the plate to the registered owner of the vehicle," Territo said.
The Port Authority toll cameras at the George Washington Bridge are not as sophisticated, so it takes old fashioned police patrols to catch drivers who try to breeze through with covered plates, said the Port Authority's Shindel.
When asked if there are any legitimate reason a driver might have a license plate cover, Shindel paused and shook his head.
"No," he said. "There are misguided reasons."