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Drivers are doing this to cheat tolls on I-77. Is it legal?

The tactic makes their license plate virtually invisible to police cameras and the tolls. But it's also illegal in North Carolina.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Local law enforcement says a growing number are drivers are using license plate covers designed to avoid police cameras and drive through toll lanes on I-77 for free.

NBC Charlotte's Defenders discovered the dangerous trend — which is illegal — is happening more than you might think. 

Between January and September, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police said they cited 157 people for obstructed plates. That's about 17 a month. With the recent grand opening of 26 miles of toll lanes on I-77 north of Charlotte, drivers and police soon noticed something strange.

Cameras designed to catch plate numbers were suddenly logging some abnormalities.There are videos all over YouTube showing off how these "stealth plate covers" work and websites all over the internet sell them.

“We can’t regulate what’s being sold on the internet there’s no law against possessing something like this," said CMPD Sergeant Jesse Wood.

RELATED: 'It's a nightmare' | I-77 construction causes damage to car

But Sgt. Wood says it absolutely is illegal to use them on the road in North Carolina. He says people are doing it anyway.

“It’s very common," Wood said. "Some [do it] because they don’t want to go through the registration process. Some people may be involved in some type of criminal activity and they’re trying to conceal who they are."

He says that’s a concern for both public and officer safety. And then there are those who are just trying to cheat the toll cameras.

“The toll lanes and things like that are paid for by taxpayers' money, so people that are trying to get around this, it’s putting more burden on the taxpayer," Sgt. Wood said.

I-77 Mobility Partners told NBC Charlotte in a statement: "I-77 Express contracts with law enforcement agencies to patrol the express lanes. Per NC State Statute, drivers who willingly obstruct a license plate could face a Class 2 misdemeanor."

Charlotte police say they’re catching on and cracking down, too. CMPD records show on average they’re issuing a citation for an obstructed plate in Charlotte every other day.

And they’re training officers how to spot even the most covert designs.

“If you’re right behind it you might not be able to see it," Sgt. Wood said. "But you get off from that straight-on access, it becomes very obvious and it’s a thing that will jump out at you."

RELATED: How drivers are trying to avoid paying tolls on I-77 and still use the express lanes

In fact, he says instead of hiding you from the law, a plate cover could throw you in the spotlight.

“Having something like this on there is going to raise an officer’s question as to why somebody has it on there, why they’re trying to conceal their plate, which is going to draw their attention to that person," Sgt. Wood said.

In North Carolina, it’s actually illegal to cover any part of your plate, even the state name or "first in flight" lettering. Sgt Wood added sometimes people accidentally violate the law and have no idea, so it's generally best to avoid most frames and covers and keep that plate clearly visible.

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