Imagine seeing an online ad for what looks like a carbon copy of your licence plate.
Omar Ahmad didn’t have to imagine it.
Last month, Ahmad’s brother sent him a link to a Facebook Marketplace listing for “any Canadian province plates for all your needs” for $26, alongside an image of what looked like an Ontario licence plate “3MAR.”
That’s the personalized Ontario plate Ahmad has had for 11 years. His wife gave it to him as a gift back in high school for a car he’d built as a showpiece for his family’s auto body shop in Hamilton, Ont.
“It literally looked like if you took a picture of my plate and put it up there,” said Ahmad.
“To take a plate that’s legitimately made — it’s somebody’s registered plate — and to make it into a fake plate multiple people have is just — it’s wild.”
Ahmad says the ad did, however, solve the mystery of why he has received four Highway 407 ETR bills connected to the vanity plate of a car he rarely drives since August.
He’s just one of a growing number of drivers receiving 407 charges for trips they say they never took.
On average, Highway 407 ETR investigated more than 500 accounts a month last year for toll charges related to lost, stolen or duplicated licence plates. That’s double the nearly 250 accounts the toll highway operator investigated a month in 2019 for the same issue.
The fake-plate business
It appears that at least part of the increase comes down to how easy it is to duplicate a real licence plate like Ahmad’s.
CBC Toronto found several vendors selling custom licence plates online for novelty use. To determine whether the plates could pass for the real thing, a reporter ordered a replica of a CBC vehicle’s licence plate earlier this month. The novelty plate was shipped within a few hours and delivered within the week.
Although the fake plate is made of plastic, it could pass for the real thing on the road. Depending on how much someone is willing to spend, other vendors also sell metal and high-end adhesive sticker replica plates.
“We have seen some very well-disguised fake licence plates out there that wouldn’t catch the eye of an officer,” said Sgt. Kerry Schmidt, with Ontario Provincial Police’s highway safety division. “You wouldn’t know until the driver of the vehicle was stopped for some sort of violation.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for Highway 407 ETR said they’re aware of cases where “an individual’s licence plate number has been stolen or illegally duplicated,” and in those cases the company will work with customers to identify illegitimate trips and reverse the charges.
“Bad actors have become more sophisticated and we’ve seen instances where the cloned plates will be used on similar vehicle makes and models, and even colours,” said spokesperson Christina Basil.
Buying, selling novelty plates is legal
It’s legal to buy, sell and possess novelty licence plates in Ontario. The OPP says that only changes when someone uses one of those plates on the road.
Under Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act, it is an offence to use a plate not authorized for a vehicle. But if a driver is caught doing so, the associated fine is $140.
For comparison, it costs roughly $60 for someone to drive one way on the 407 ETR from the QEW in Burlington to the end of the 407 ETR portion of the highway at Brock Road in Pickering during morning rush hour on a weekday, according to the highway’s toll calculator.
If a driver’s licence plate is duplicated, 407 ETR, the Ministry of Transportation and OPP all say the driver should report their plates to police, then go to a Service Ontario location and pay $59 for new plates to avoid further bills or tickets.
Daniel Tsai, a consumer rights expert, says it’s hard to argue the ministry should bear the cost of replacement plates instead, but he ultimately thinks the government is responsible if it doesn’t try to fix the problem.
“[The ministry is] there to ensure the legitimacy and authenticity of licence plates,” said Tsai, an adjunct professor of law, technology and business at the University of Toronto and Toronto Metropolitan University.
He says the province should take steps to deter fake plates by increasing the penalty for using them and banning the sale of novelty plates “that are indistinguishable from the real thing.”
CBC Toronto asked Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation what it’s doing to deter drivers from duplicating plates — and why legitimate licence plate holders have to bear the cost of this problem by getting new plates.
The ministry did not directly answer those, and other, questions. Instead, a ministry spokesperson released a statement saying the province doesn’t regulate the sale of novelty licence plates and if a driver’s plate is duplicated, they “will need to get a new licence plate.”
“The ministry charges a fee of $59 for the replacement of vehicle permits and plates to cover the costs associated in processing, producing and shipping replacements,” said spokesperson Tanya Blazina.
Nothing drivers can do to prevent duplicates: OPP
When it comes to preventing your plate from being duplicated, Sgt. Schmidt said “there’s really nothing you can do,” because by the time a driver gets a bill or ticket, their plate has already been cloned.
“You have to clear your name and prevent this from continuing,” he said.
Tsai believes the increase in disputed 407 charges related to licence plates is a symptom of bigger problems.
“These guys are not just sticking the plates on before they enter the 407,” said Tsai. “They’re actually driving all around Toronto and potentially engaging in crimes — maybe car thefts and carjackings.”
Or maybe just parking wherever they want.
Ottawa resident gets 4 Toronto parking tickets
Connie Jensen, who lives in Ottawa, has received four Toronto parking tickets since May 2022 even though she says she hasn’t driven to Toronto since getting her current car and plates.
At first, she thought the ticketed plate must have just been written down wrong. But by the time she got the third and fourth tickets back-to-back in recent months, she’d changed her mind.
“I think it’s come down to someone has my plates,” Jensen said. “Some of the tickets range from $30 to $150, so these people are parking wherever they want, even in rush hour.”
The City of Toronto cancelled Jensen’s first two parking tickets. The third and fourth are still pending.
Jensen says the city’s review process didn’t tell her how they determined she wasn’t behind the parking violations, nor how she can prevent getting more tickets — such as by getting new plates.
“It’s just getting frustrating,” she said. “I would like more answers than the canned response.”
In a statement, the City of Toronto wouldn’t comment on Jensen’s tickets. But a spokesperson said its screening officers have access to photos taken of the vehicle involved in an alleged parking violation and consider records concerning prior tickets associated with the licence plate when reviewing a disputed ticket.
Jensen believes it shouldn’t be up to her and other drivers whose licence plates have likely been duplicated to pay to prevent this from happening.
“I don’t think the onus should be on the victim,” she said.
“Having people that are victims of this fix the problem is simply a Band-Aid solution.”