Sheriff warns of crime trend after he falls victim to it

Published: Dec. 6, 2022 at 7:20 PM EST
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The Indian River County Sheriff is warning about a crime that can be so easy to overlook that even he recently fell victim to it.

The crime is nothing new. Criminals steal license plates in an effort to mask a stolen car or try to buy time to commit other crimes.

But Sheriff Eric Flowers said newer technology is helping them catch more stolen plates.

A police report from Indian River Shores showed Flowers was driving along A1A in Indian River County with a female passenger on Black Friday.

The car he was driving, he said, belonged to his friend.

Suddenly he saw police lights behind him, prompting him to pull over.

"I had no reason to believe there was anything crazy going on, and then all of a sudden I got pulled over," Flowers said.

Both an Indian River Shores officer and one of his own sergeants approached him.

"He looked like he was on a mission," Flowers described.

He learned the urgency stemmed from the plate on his car being flagged by a license plate reader as being stolen.

According to police records from St. Petersburg police, the tag from Flowers' friend's car was stolen while she was recently in Pinellas County.

It was swapped with a tag from a stolen car that was a similar make and model and found abandoned.

"Bad guys who know about our license plate reader system, and know these systems are going in around Florida, are stealing license plates and swapping them out," Flowers said. "So, whenever you steal a car now, you have to steal a license plate of a similar type of vehicle."

But for Flowers, he said this also showed license plate readers he pushed to have implemented around the county are doing their job.

Forty-eight cameras have been installed around the county since September 2021.

Since then, Flowers said they've tracked 400 stolen vehicles. He said license plate readers as recently as last week helped deputies track burglary suspects through the county, leading deputies on a pursuit that ended in arrests.

"They had covered their license plate with a temporary tag. … As we were giving chase, the paper tag came off and the real tag was identified," Flowers explained. "It's just an incredible system. It's done so much for Indian River County to keep us safer."

Flowers said he expects to receive more reports of stolen plates as the holidays approach. His agency has received 12 reports in the last two months.

"Right now, bad guys are desperate. Our economy is not in the best shape," Flowers said. "Holidays are coming. We see crimes increase during the holidays anyway, so we expect that this is going to continue to happen."

Plates can be stolen off of cars, but also trailers, which might take longer to notice.

Flowers said cars can be targeted anywhere, including homes and parking lots.

"The real bad guys that are going to go commit serious [crimes], they're looking for a similar vehicle," Flowers said.

If it's not a habit yet, Flowers recommends taking a look at your plate every now and then to make sure it is the right one. Consider buying locks and covers to make stealing your license plate more difficult.

"Make sure it's the correct plate on your vehicle, so you don't end up in the same situation I was in," Flowers said.

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