COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A scam sweeping the nation has hit South Carolina roads. Richland County investigators say some people behind the wheel are getting a free ride from taxes and registration fees by signing up to be Native American.
Investigators say the tribal tags have made their way to the Midlands, giving drivers more than a ticket to ride. Lt. Chris Cowan says, "You buy a car you have to pay registration, insurance, taxes, and these people are not doing that."
Some of those accused of using the plates have other problems with the law as well.
Joseph Brunson of Hopkins was charged with trying to take millions from investors through a group called the Three Hebrew Boys in May. While out on bond in that case, he was stopped August 14th. Officers say he now claims to be part of The Little Shell Pembina band of North America.
It's a self-proclaimed Native American tribe that issues their own plates and registration cards, a great benefit for anyone willing to pay money to be a member of the tribe. The only problem is that the federal government doesn't recognize Little Shell Pembina.
The tags and driving documents are bogus - officials say it's a way some people are trying to "beat the system."
WIS News 10's Angie Goff confronted Brunson's wife:
Angie: "Is that your car?"
Mrs. Brunson: "Yes, it's my car."
Angie: "Do you pay taxes on that car?"
Mrs. Brunson: "I have no comment."
Angie: "Do you have insurance on that car? You know those tags aren't legit."
Mrs. Brunson: "No, I don't know that. Like I said, I have no comment."
When Angie asked how she got the tags, Mrs. Brunson cut off the conversation.
Richland County is currently working at least five cases, trying to find who's making the plates. It's difficult because an online search of the group brings up multiple sites, and it's almost impossible to contact anybody.
We did, however, find a phone number on USDG.info, a place where for $150 anyone, regardless of race, can apply to join Pembina Nation Little Shell. Reading on, we learn you can eventually apply for vehicle registration, title and tags.
Interested, WIS News 10 called. Keisha Jones refused to answer Angie's questions, and she repeatedly said to print out an application and mail it in.
Lt. Cowan says, "The individuals involved in this are con-artists. This is a scam. It is illegal, and we will continue to search them out."
In Brunson's case, officers think he knew what he was doing, but they say that doesn't seem to be the situation for everyone, that some people believe that officers have no right to take the tags away.
At Eric Grant's Horrell Hill home, three vehicles are now stationary. Their tags are stripped, and Grant's family is furious.
Grant says he's protected by his tribe, that after he paid Pembina nation money in 2004, they researched and found he had Pembina in his family. He says they even mailed authentic documents, but he couldn't find them for us.
Angie asks Eric, "To get all these benefits, is there anything that sounds weird to you about this?"
He responds, "No, but what does kind of sound weird to me is that when I can go to the law book and in the law that says that you don't have to register your car or pay the taxes on your car."
"So you don't believe you need to pay car taxes or register you car?" Angie asks. Eric shakes his head no.
But he nods when she asks, "You think everyone else in South Carolina is being scammed by the state?"
He says, "Because it's in their law books."
Grant gave Angie the state code for exemptions from registration. The section highlighted referred to trailers and straight trucks. The tags taken were off of two BMWs and a Tahoe.
In South Carolina it's clear, every vehicle driven on state roads must be registered and licensed, so the Grants and the Brunsons will now need to find a ride to court. If convicted, they could face jail time, which means anyone cruising around with the fake plates could end up in real trouble down the road.
Officers tell WIS News 10 if you were to get hit by someone who's driving illegally, chances are you won't be compensated in the accident.
The plates have been spotted across the nation. Officers want you to report them if you see them in South Carolina. They also ask if you bought into the scam unknowingly, call them.
Reported by Angie Goff