Ready to apply your counterfeit vehicle inspection sticker?

First: “Park in a secure area. (People love to be nosy and tattle tale.)”

That’s how the instructions began for one Maine counterfeiter’s black-market stickers – a surprisingly detailed, eight-step process for putting your new, fake-but-incredibly-real-looking sticker on your windshield.

And it worked, for a while. Then, someone tattled.

The Saco printing operation that had been making and selling the stickers got busted. Four men were charged; one got a two-year sentence. One of the fake stickers and its instructions went to Lt. Bruce Scott’s Fake Sticker Hall of Fame.

“There are counterfeit stickers all over the place,” he said. “(Some) do such a good job making our stickers, if they just put in a bid they could make an honest living.”

Scott oversees the state’s annual vehicle inspection sticker program, with its 1.3 million legal stickers and untold illegal ones.

He, a sergeant, eight civilian inspectors and two clerical staff within the Maine State Police’s Motor Vehicle Inspection Unit are charged with keeping the state’s vehicles up to safety standards, and they’ve about seen and heard it all.

In a little-publicized move, Maine this year stepped up its anti-counterfeit game with new sticker security measures. Fraud happens, Scott said, but not as much as you might think, and not always in the way you might think.

• • •

Maine has had an inspection sticker program since 1933. (Scott has those historical stickers on his wall, too.) It used to be required every six months, but it’s been annual since the 1960s.

Nearly as regular: Legislative attempts to repeal, replace or otherwise change the program. Bills were introduced in 2017, 2015, 2011, 2005 and 2003, to name a few.

Only 16 states have regular annual or biennial inspection requirements for all passenger vehicles, according to AAA.

Most motorists here pay $12.50 (or $18.50 in Cumberland County) for an annual once-over that can flag broken taillights, bald tires, missing mufflers, etc.

Maine cars do run long in the tooth: The average passenger car with an active registration is 9.3 years old and the average number of miles is 100,131, according to the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

Testifying to the Transportation Committee last March against a bill that would have scrapped inspections, Dick Cole, executive director of the New England Tire & Service Association, argued that inspections aren’t a money grab by garage owners.

“The chemicals being used to help clear the roads of ice in the winter contribute to much faster problems with rust and wear-out of exhausts, brakes, brake lines, lights, horns, wiring bushings, front end parts, struts, etc.,” he wrote.

Echoed Patrick Eisenhart, a retired U.S. Coast Guard commander who lives in Augusta: “Brakes that fail, wheels falling off, cars catching fire transform” vehicles into “dangerous weapons perhaps even more deadly than a loaded gun.”

On the other side were people like Heather Moore, who emailed the committee: “As a woman, I seem to have the word sucker stamped on my forehead and I’m sick of being at the mercy of crooked mechanics.”

Mike Quatrano, director of civic engagement for The Maine Heritage Policy Center, also testified that the program needs to go.

“Winter conditions haven’t prevented Minnesota, North Dakota and Connecticut — which receive an average of nearly 50 inches of snow a year — from repealing their vehicle inspection programs,” he wrote. “Research using crash statistics from these states has not shown an increase in vehicular accidents, injuries or fatalities.”

The committee considered all and killed the bill.

The programs stands, which means you still need a sticker. Preferably, from the state’s perspective, not one procured in a bar.

One of the confiscated counterfeit inspection stickers that are displayed on the Fake Sticker Hall of Fame board in the traffic safety unit headquarters in Augusta recently. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

• • •

Who’s inspecting? And how on the up and up are they?

Maine has 2,600 licensed inspection stations and 8,000 technicians licensed to perform inspections.

They’re vetted in advance for “honesty, integrity and reliability,” Scott said. “We check their background and criminal background.”

It’s not a fool-proof system, he said, but for most, there’s financial incentive in walking the straight and narrow — they want the business that offering inspections attracts. That prevents most from stickering a neighbor’s car as a favor or turning a blind eye to a dangling undercarriage.

“We kind of talk about mistakes of the mind and mistakes of the heart,” Scott said. “Mistakes of the mind means you just overlooked something — that can happen. We have a very strict program; we ask them to look at hundreds of components on a vehicle.”

Get caught and that’s likely a warning.

“Mistakes of the heart, we’re going to take your license (to issue stickers) the first time around,” he said. “We want a good, solid program. We want to help counsel, educate and lecture (technicians) into compliance, but if we know they’re just plain old doing wrong, they’re losing their license and they may be criminally charged as well.”

Last year, the state handed technicians 139 verbal warnings, 158 written warnings and 177 suspensions.

One of the confiscated counterfeit inspection stickers that are displayed on the Fake Sticker Hall of Fame board in the traffic safety unit headquarters in Augusta recently. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Basic details are available online about each: Causing unnecessary repairs. Improper inspection. Issuing a sticker to a defective motor vehicle.

Scott encourages consumers to check out the database before visiting a new shop.

For a station owner, stickering wantonly risks losing your license, losing business and maybe losing everything.

“If they put stickers on substandard vehicles that are involved in a (fatal) crash, and we determine it should have not received a sticker, losing their license is probably the last thing they’re going to worry about when they’re sued civilly for everything that they own because a defective vehicle killed somebody,” he said.

(One of his arguments for keeping the state’s inspection program: Historically, 3 percent of Maine crashes are caused by a motor vehicle defect compared to an average 12 percent nationally, according to Scott.)

His unit hears the gossip, too, about Garage X, Y or Z being an easy sticker. That triggers a visit and a chat from a state inspector.

Right now, there’s nothing in place to stop a dogged driver who is determined to keep trying and trying to get a sticker on their rust bucket without making repairs.

“It’s not an electronic system, so one garage has no idea of what the other garage has said or done,” Scott said. “They can literally get away with going to 2,600 stations if they wanted to.”

‘Hello, I’d like to report … myself?’

Last year, his unit received more than 230 sticker-related complaints.

“We don’t get a lot of people turning themselves in, ‘Hey, I’ve got a sticker on my car and I shouldn’t have got it,'” Scott said. “What we do have is a lot of people that purchase a used car that has a new sticker on it (but the car has problems); those are your complainers.”

After one of those calls, an inspector will give the vehicle a once-over to determine whether it should have passed. If not, the sticker’s scraped off and back to the station they go. His unit can ding the technician; the Bureau of Motor Vehicles dings dealerships.

In the past five years, the BMV has issued a warning or summons to 1,245 dealerships for vehicle-related issues. Some dealerships are represented multiple times in that count, and the count doesn’t represent the total number of violations found, according to a spokeswoman.

Sometimes, a person calls in irate over what appears to be someone else’s tired ride sporting a fresh sticker. Scott will run the plate, determine where the vehicle’s owner lives and give a heads-up to that local police department.

Paul Fournier of Mechanic Falls said he tried complaining to police last month about the abundance of cars on the road with expired stickers and rust spots so big “you can put your right hand through the fender,” and even had one offender’s license plate number, but felt like he got nowhere. Fournier’s determined now to take the issue up with legislative leaders, asking them to put more money toward enforcement.

“They way I look at it, why do I have to sticker my car if nobody else does?” he said. “I hardly ever get through an inspection for less than $500 or $600; they always find something wrong with it. The last time I went through was just a few weeks ago and it was $800.”

Scott said it’s tricky to use complaints from the public to go after particular vehicles.

“If they find that vehicle and it’s driving down the road and they don’t think it looks defective, they can’t stop it based on the complaint,” he said.

Important to keep in mind: “The inspection is a snapshot in time, so it had to pass on the day and time of the sticker. It doesn’t mean the next day it’s going to pass, because brake lights can go out, headlights can go out.”

Less often, state and local police pick up on a car that shouldn’t have been stickered, but it usually has to be due to an obvious issue.

His unit’s recently gotten feedback that people are confused about who to complain to when they have an inspection-related problem with a garage or dealer.

After it sank the March bill that would have ended the inspection program, the Transportation Committee asked Scott to reconvene the Motor Vehicle Advisory Board to evaluate the complaint process and report back. This winter, that could mean a website tweak, or more widely advertising the unit’s phone number.

“We want the same thing you want: We just want people to be safe,” he said. “We want to know if they have a problem — we definitely want to hear from them.”

Also, they want to nail imposters.

Real-fake vs. fake-fake vs. ripped off

There are a cornucopia of ways to try to cheat the system outside of getting a sticker from your buddy who does inspections:

• Get your “good” car inspected, drive home and finagle that sticker onto your “bad” car.

• Buy a black-market legit sticker stolen from a garage’s supply or sold by an unscrupulous garage owner to a third party for resale.

• Buy a black-market illegal sticker created by a counterfeiter.

So far this year, 13 people have been busted for counterfeit stickers, for making, using or possessing them, according to the Maine Judicial Branch Violations Bureau. More than 160 have been caught in the past six years.

“There are always going to be those knuckleheads that take a crayon and make their own and put it on the dash to hope it’s close enough that they don’t get stopped,” Scott said. But overall, “I’ve seen a higher level of sophistication in our counterfeit stickers — they’re doing an unbelievable job of making stickers look real.”

Those better fakes command $100 for a passenger vehicle and as much as $250 for a commercial one.

“Unfortunately, they’re all over the place,” he said. “They’re being sold at bars, they’re being sold on street corners.”

They’re frequently found at drug busts.

This year, to combat that, the state added an additional harder-to-counterfeit feature to its 2017-18 stickers that it’s doing again in 2018-19. He doesn’t want the specifics advertised, for obvious reasons.

“We’ve had pretty good success with that,” Scott said. “I’m being told, and I haven’t seen it yet, that there was one fake found in southern Maine that had our counterfeit feature on it. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it makes it a whole lot harder for your average print shop to pull off. One person figured it out.”

Kathryn Skelton can be contacted at:

[email protected]