As part of a recent crackdown, the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles has filed criminal or civil charges against nearly 600 inspection garages and employees who gave passing marks to vehicles "suspiciously soon" after they failed inspection at another garage.
The move comes as the agency works to build confidence in its vehicle inspection program. Motorists have long suspected some inspection garages go easy, while others are sticklers.
In March, the DMV began to scrutinize records for vehicles that failed inspection, then passed a short time later. Officials would not say what time frame they consider suspect.
They said the effort has kept cars the state deems unsafe because of mechanical defects or faulty emissions systems off the road.
"If we had not caught them, these cars would be out running free with bald tires, bad stuff, no lights," said Jimmie Massengill, assistant supervisor of the DMV's License & Theft Bureau.
Less than two weeks ago, the DMV said it charged Sam Clark, who owns Clark's Garage in west Charlotte. Authorities accused Clark of falsifying inspection results, said Marge Howell, DMV spokeswoman.
Investigators detected that vehicles passed inspection at Clark's after they failed somewhere else, Howell said.
Clark's performed 13,118 inspections from 2008 through March 2011. Only 35 failed inspections.
The DMV employs 167 agents, making about $35,000 to $65,000 a year, who perform investigations as well as other duties.
The DMV once had a staff of auditors who also tried to catch garages that cheat. In a budget-cutting move, the DMV eliminated all 39 auditor positions this year and said they would beef up enforcement with better use of investigators and computer technology.
On a recent day, two DMV agents sat in a parked car outside a Cabarrus County strip mall to spy on an inspection garage across the street.
The agents, who did not want their names published because they work undercover, are sworn law enforcement officers who carry badges and guns and have arrest powers.
One agent readied a laptop computer that allows him to see what's typed into a computer inside the garage. Garages today must record their work online in real time, which is how the state collects data.
The agent said he sometimes catches garages that attempt to perform inspections without taking vehicles inside their shops or falsify emissions test results. In recent years, he said, he has seen fewer garages breaking the rules.
The DMV suspended 126 garages from the inspection program last year for serious violations, fewer than in 2009 when it handed down 207 suspensions. The agency attributes the drop to bolstered security during the past two years.
But the DMV has had problems quickly identifying and investigating fraudulent inspections.
The DMV awarded Verizon Business a $51.5 million contract extension three years ago to manage inspection data. The data help the DMV identify possible illegal inspections.
Verizon Business, however, has taken as long as three months to provide the state information from inspections, said DMV Commissioner Mike Robertson. The delays allowed unethical garages to perform illegal inspections uninterrupted for longer periods. It also made it more difficult for the DMV to prove cases once fraud was discovered, Robertson said.
A spokeswoman for Verizon said the company has fulfilled obligations spelled out in its contract with the state.
The DMV's agreement with Verizon ends in October 2012 and Robertson said he wants proposals from other vendors. He said he would like technology that flags illegal inspections right away.
"I am not making excuses, but a big part of the problem is we can't get the information we need immediately," Robertson said. "The computer will catch up, but it will take months. ... We go to the station, ask about it and they say 'two or three months ago? We don't remember.' "
Still, Robertson said, enforcement is better than when he took over.
The difference between now and the past, he said, is "we catch 'em."
(Raleigh) News & Observer reporters Bruce Siceloff and David Raynor contributed.