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San Francisco orders Amazon, Walmart and eBay to stop selling illegal license plate covers

Bip City
A man climbs through a broken window after breaking into a van parked on Lombard Street in San Francisco in 2018. | Source: Scott Strazzante/San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images

From ram-raiding storefronts and grabbing ATMs to dangerous sideshows and “bipping,” much of San Francisco’s all-too-public crime lately has involved cars, leading city officials to call out online retailers Wednesday over the sale of products and tools that help hide the identities of drivers and vehicles.

In cease-and-desist letters sent out by San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu, online vendors Amazon, Walmart, eBay and Etsy were sternly reminded of the illegality of such products.

A uniformed police chief stands beside a placard showing images and online reviews of illegal license plate holders. The chief actively listens to a suit-wearing man standing beside him at a podium and speaking at a press conference. A San Francisco City Attorney seal and American, state, city and pride flags stand on a wall behind the two men.
San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott listens Wednesday as San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu outlines cease-and-desist letters sent to online retailers selling illegal vehicle license plate covers. | Source: George Kelly/The Standard

Chiu called out those vendors alongside San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott at a news conference Wednesday morning at City Hall.

“License plate covers that obscure the plate numbers impede the ability of law enforcement to investigate and apprehend individuals engaged in criminal activities, such as sideshows, thefts, and robberies,” Chiu said in a letter sent to Marie Oh Huber, eBay’s chief legal officer.

Several models of illegal license plate covers sold online, seen at a Wednesday press conference at the San Francisco City Attorney's Office, allow drivers to illegally block, distort and tint letters and numbers from legibility. | George Kelly/The Standard | Source: George Kelly/The Standard

The letter included attached images of covers that allow push-button concealment of license plates and vinyl covers that hamper plates’ legibility or claim to obscure their visibility to various law enforcement surveillance tools, including red-light, speed and toll cameras.

“eBay should already be aware that these license plate covers are illegal and being used to facilitate illegal conduct and evade law enforcement because product descriptions and reviews on its website openly state so,” Chiu’s letter continues.

“With these types of crimes, the perpetrators often flee in vehicles,” Scott said at a press conference. “When we are unable to detect license plates, it puts us at a huge disadvantage.”

A woman's hands hold a demonstration license plate with a semitransparent cover blocking the plate's letters and numbers from visibility.
At a Wednesday press conference, a San Francisco City Attorney's Office staffer shows how a semitransparent vinyl cover distorts and limits the legibility of a California license plate's letters and numbers. | Source: George Kelly/The Standard

Scott referenced officers in the department’s street units that handle surveillance and pursue car burglaries and other persistent property crimes: “We need to be doing everything we can to put the advantage on the side of the people of the city, on the side of the people doing the work, including police officers and prosecutors who have to prosecute these cases.”

“We’ve received the letter and reached out to the San Francisco City Attorney’s office,” a Walmart spokesperson said Wednesday afternoon. “We take issues like this seriously and are working to remove listings which violate our prohibited products policy.  We look forward to continued discussions with the city attorney’s office.”

“Sellers are obligated to comply with applicable laws, and eBay makes significant investments to help ensure a safe buying and selling experience for our customers,” a spokesperson told The Standard, adding that the company was removing the relevant listings and would continue to “monitor the marketplace.”

“In addition to removing listings, we are updating our proactive controls to prevent sellers from listing these products.”

“Etsy expressly prohibits the sale of items which are intended to evade the detection of illegal activity, including license plate covers, and Etsy sellers are required to comply with all applicable laws and regulations,” a spokesperson told The Standard.

“We continue to monitor our marketplace and improve the systems that detect and remove violative listings, and we have already removed those cited in the [San Francisco] attorney’s letter.”

A spokesperson said Amazon “does not have a comment for your reporting at this time,” but did offer a link “for awareness” to its Seller Central platform’s examples of permitted and prohibited listings. Within those examples, one of several entries for “[p]roducts designed to defeat, bypass, or otherwise interfere with law enforcement, vehicle or road safety features, or other legal requirements” prohibited “[p]hoto blocker sprays or license plate covers intended to obscure the reading or recognition of a license plate.”

When The Standard told Chiu of eBay’s response and asked how quickly retailers have responded to similar past cease-and-desist orders, he said response times varied.

“When it comes to these products, we think it is so clear that the law is being violated that we’re hopeful that we won’t have to wait too long for these companies to do the right thing,” Chiu said. “But obviously, we’ll wait and see.”

Spokespeople for Etsy and Amazon told the New York Times that sellers on their sites were required to comply with all laws and that the sites removed illegal items when they were made aware of them.