Police say a group in the Biddeford-Saco area that made counterfeit inspection stickers helped keep dozens — and possibly hundreds — of unsafe vehicles on the road.

In the past month, police have charged four people with manufacturing the stickers using a home computer and printer, or with selling them. Police are still searching for one suspect.

The crackdown should make the roads safer, said Biddeford Police Chief Roger Beaupre.

“The Legislature concluded this is the only mechanism we have to keep unsafe motor vehicles off the highway, where they risk causing death and injury,” Beaupre said.

Biddeford police have ticketed more than 105 cars bearing fake stickers, with almost all of the vehicles more than 10 years old, said Beaupre, who fears that is just a sampling of the problem. He estimates that 400 to 500 or more cars that would have failed state inspections are being driven with fake stickers.

The counterfeit inspection stickers sold for $75 to $100, much less than a significant car repair. Often, one person would buy stickers from the maker for $75 each, then sell them for $100, Beaupre said. The people who printed the stickers paid only for materials.

Biddeford police first discovered one of the fake inspection stickers in March. By the end of April, they had issued 30 citations for displaying a fictitious inspection sticker, a misdemeanor.

Beaupre said the ticketing wasn’t getting at the root of the problem, so police got more aggressive. They started towing vehicles and arresting the owners.

Beaupre said some officers got particularly adept at spotting the fakes.

He designated Peter Wentworth, Biddeford’s school resource officer, to coordinate the enforcement and follow up with interviews. That led to the arrests and a search of a home in Saco on Friday.

Beaupre said police don’t know how long the group has been making counterfeit stickers, but he hopes a search of the contents of computers that were seized will tell them.

In some cases, police got lucky. They stopped one woman for an expired sticker, then found it was a fake. She had a new counterfeit in the car with her, along with detailed instructions from the seller.

The instructions say the customer needs a razor blade, a black pen and their vehicle’s registration. The person is instructed to find a secluded place, scrape the old sticker off, peel the adhesive backing from the new one and carefully put it in place.

The number of an inspection station is provided. The person is told to write in their vehicle identification number, fill in a date from a few weeks earlier and subtract 100 from the vehicle’s actual mileage, so the driver can say that vehicle defects happened after the inspection.

Those defects are what make the crime so disturbing, say police.

“Rather than spend the money to fix their vehicles, which could cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars to make safe and inspectable, they choose the cheap but illegal option and you have unsafe motor vehicles on the road,” said Sgt. Brian Scott, who supervises the Maine State Police vehicle inspection unit.

“I think technology has made it easier, and I think, also, the criminal world has been exposed to this as an easy source of money,” Scott said.

A year ago, state police broke up a counterfeit inspection sticker operation in northern Maine. Trooper Shawn Whalen discovered a rash of fake stickers and ultimately charged Michael Levesque, 31, of Connor Township with aggravated forgery, a felony. He was sentenced to 17 months in prison.

The four people charged with aggravated forgery this month — Shane Jones, 23, Christopher Perry, 34, and Forrest Mills, 54, of Biddeford and Richard Andrews, 39, of Arundel — all have full-time jobs unrelated to car repair, Beaupre said.

He said officers have a technique to determine whether a sticker is fake, but he wouldn’t divulge it. Some of the fake stickers bore an “E” symbol, indicating a Cumberland County inspection that includes an emissions test and costs $18.50, compared with $12.50 for a standard inspection. Beaupre said it’s unlikely that someone from York County would get the more expensive inspection, so it raises suspicion when they have an “E” sticker.

Of the people cited for having fake inspection stickers, 30 percent to 40 percent have some criminal record, such as driving with a suspended license or drug possession, Beaupre said.

The crime may have its roots in the recession. Statistics show that people are driving cars longer, instead of replacing them with newer models, said Pat Moody, spokesman for AAA of Northern New England.

“People are more likely to hang on to their car a little longer in this economy, and they’re more likely to spring for a costly repair than buy a new vehicle,” Moody said. “We’re also seeing the flip side of that — putting off preventive maintenance.”

AAA saw a 29 percent increase in demand for emergency roadside assistance in the first quarter of this year over the same period last year, though some of that was caused by the harsh winter, he said.

Jon DeLuca, who manages AAA’s Car Care Center on Marginal Way, said a state inspection is designed to pick out major safety hazards such as ineffective brakes, rusty brake lines or bad steering and suspension components.

“It’s more of a safety thing than anything else. If you have a ball joint that fails, your tire is going to fold in on you,” DeLuca said.

Changes in Maine’s annual inspection requirement have periodically come before the Legislature, including proposals that newer cars be exempt or be inspected less frequently.

DeLuca said road conditions in Maine and other Northern states are different from those in Southern states, so vehicles here are more prone to wear and tear.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: [email protected]