Schenectady DA: Amsterdam man admits fraudulent license plate scheme; Investigator’s curiosity credited with case

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SCHENECTADY An Amsterdam man admitted this week to a scheme that involved selling fraudulent license plates, Schenectady County District Attorney’s officials said.

Earl Armstrong, 41, of Amsterdam, pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree scheme to defraud, a felony.

In return for his plea, he is to be sentenced to 18 months to three years in state prison, officials said.

Armstrong lived in Amsterdam, but operated an unlicensed motor vehicle repair shop in Schenectady, officials said.

The investigation began in May 2020 after District Attorney’s investigators, during a surveillance operation in Schenectady, spotted someone driving a pickup truck with a temporary license plate purportedly issued by Texas, officials said. 

The driver was later identified as Armstrong, whose driver’s license was revoked at the time. Investigators looked into the plate further, due to prior instances of fraud involving Texas plates and they soon determined the truck had been reported stolen out of Maryland. 

Investigators also learned that the real Texas plates would have come from dealerships, but the Texas system lacked safeguards, as well as connection to a national database that would allow for easy identification of them by law enforcement on patrol, officials said.

Vast numbers of the Texas plates, however, were on Capital Region roads. With the information they were likely fraudulent, local law enforcement agencies, along with the New York State Police and state Department of Motor Vehicles, then made numerous traffic  stops around the region.

Those stops then resulted in the discovery of numerous stolen vehicles, firearms, drugs and drivers operating vehicles with revoked or suspended driving privileges.

Locally, members of the Schenectady County Sheriff’s Office, along with the Schenectady and Niskayuna police departments developed intelligence indicating that Armstrong was selling the plates, for hundreds of dollars each out of his unlicensed vehicle repair shop in the area of State and Hulett streets in Schenectady, officials said.

Investigators then found the initial truck parked outside his apartment in Amsterdam and DMV investigators seized it and eventually returned it to the car dealership in Maryland, officials said.

During a search of his shop, investigators seized numerous fraudulent Texas plates, along with laminating materials used to affix the plates to vehicles, officials said.

Text messages showed the scheme to be “quite lucrative,” officials said in a release.

At least one of Armstrong’s co-conspirators w as indicted on federal charges in Texas related to the scheme, prosecutors said.

“This prosecution results from the curiosity of DA Investigator James McCrum regarding the suspicious use of a paper Texas license plate,” Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney said in a statement. “It turns out that Mr. Armstrong played a small local part in a scheme in which federal authorities have taken down a ring of individuals in Texas and New York responsible for issuing nearly 600,000 fraudulent temporary plates. 

“These phony plates could be used, as this one was, to conceal a stolen car, or to be placed on vehicles used to commit other crimes to avoid detection,” Carney said.

Carney credited his office’s Financial Crimes Unit, consisting of Assistant District Attorney William Lemon and McCrum, with discovering, exposing and eliminating the scam.

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