Mechanical devices that can hide a driver’s tag at the push of a button are sold online for a couple hundred bucks. Other drivers are getting creative on the cheap, jury-rigging their plates with face masks or duct tape.

“There’s a lot of inventive people with a lot of time on their hands,” said Robin Bramwell-Stewart, a deputy director at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, whose facilities include the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln and Holland tunnels.

This type of toll evasion has cost government agencies millions, prompting officials to push crackdowns like increasing fines. Toll avoidance has jumped in several areas of the country since a broad shift to all-electronic tolling early in the Covid-19 pandemic, agency figures show. Unless a car has a transponder like E-ZPass, a camera must photograph the license plate to invoice its owner by mail, as fewer places have people at toll booths collecting coins and cash.

Authorities in the Dallas and San Francisco areas say they missed out on more than $33 million combined in tolls last year due to such tactics. The hit to MTA Bridges and Tunnels, which operates seven bridges and two tunnels in New York City, was nearly $21 million, a 137% jump from 2020, the agency says.

Some drivers have power-washed paint off their plates or covered them with a range of household items such as leaf-shaped magnets, Bramwell-Stewart said. The Port Authority says officers in 2023 roughly doubled the number of summonses issued for obstructed, missing or fictitious license plates compared with the prior year.

Bramwell-Stewart said one driver from New Jersey repeatedly used what’s known in the streets as a flipper, which lets you remotely swap out a car’s real plate for a bogus one ahead of a toll area. In this instance, the bogus plate corresponded to an actual one registered to a woman who was mystified to receive the tolls. “Why do you keep billing me?” Bramwell-Stewart recalled her asking.

The Port Authority says it figured out the ruse and arrested the freerider in September on charges including tampering with public records and possession of burglar’s tools—and billed him for tolls mistakenly sent to the woman. The same man had been arrested in February 2023 after police saw a remote-controlled electronic curtain being used to cover his license plate, the authority said.

A variety of flippers are sold online. “Our Motorized Stealth Plate Flippers, allows you to flip your license plates 180°, James Bond style!” one site says, adding that the $220.49 gizmo is meant for off-road only, not public roads.

Cathy Sheridan, president of MTA Bridges and Tunnels in New York City, showed video of a flipper in action at a recent public meeting, after the car was stopped by police. One minute it had New York plates, the next it sported Texas tags. She also showed a clip of a second car with a device that lowered a cover over the plate like a curtain.

“This is about fairness for all drivers,” she said.

Obstructed or covered plates have become far more common, along with unregistered vehicles and fraudulent plates, over the past four years, Sheridan said.

Most motorists pay their way, but officials say losses from obstructed plates add up.

While just 1.5% of all transactions were unbillable last year, Sheridan said, that is money unavailable for electric buses and needed upgrades. The tactics also thwart security and traffic cameras, she added.

The MTA said 1.6 million transactions were classified as obstructed in the first 10 months of 2023, up from 923,000 in 2020. Although toll cameras operated by the agency capture front and rear plates, some states don’t require front tags, and some drivers obstruct both plates, officials say.

“It’s only going to grow if people believe they can scam the system,” said Mark Muriello, policy and government affairs director at the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, a trade group. He likened toll dodgers to shoplifters.

New York State Thruway cameras recorded a motorcyclist reaching around to cover his bike’s license plate and spotted a car whizzing by with a Cheetos bag taped over the Florida-issued tag.

The thruway’s overall volume of rejected plate images has declined in recent years, thanks to enhanced image review and quality assurance processes, a spokeswoman said. But the number of obstructed plates reached a three-year high in 2023, data show, fueled by a sharp uptick in so-called malicious obstructions—such as when a plate is bent back, or a C is turned into an O with a marker.

Some people are open about freeloading. “Just paid $900 in tolls, I am furious. How do I block toll cameras?” someone in the New York area posted on Reddit. “What are you guys using that has been working for years? I am thinking of glueing [sic] two pieces of leaf to my back and front plates. Or using dark tape to modify some of the letters. U -> 0 and J -> U” The post generated more than 250 comments and several suggested tricks.

Not all obstructions are done on purpose, some officials note. Bulky bike racks can block a camera, even if a motorist isn’t trying to cheat. But intent doesn’t matter in states like New York, where drivers are legally required to ensure their plates are fully visible.

Officials are looking for ways to crack down. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul backs state legislation that would allow police to arrest drivers for theft of services if they were caught using a mechanical or electronic device like a flipper. Hochul, a Democrat, also proposes upping the maximum fine to $500 from $300.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike encourages motorists to use a tip line to report violators.

In December, someone submitted a video of a gray Jeep SUV with a device that covers the tag at tolling points, a spokeswoman said. The Jeep has been added to regional “hot lists,” she said, for license-plate readers in Pennsylvania and surrounding states.