The CHP is clamping down on out-of-state drivers with expired license plate tags, and it's showing up in the state's bank account.

California's cheaters hotline on the Internet -- where one can anonymously report motorists they suspect are trying to avoid paying state registration fees or residents who register their vehicles at an out-of-state address -- brought in $3.2 million the past two years. That's more than double the $1.5 million for 2011 and 2010 and more than triple the $900,000 recovered in the first two years of the program from 2004 to 2005.

The Highway Patrol says that may be just the tip of the iceberg. The agency estimates California may be losing $10 million a year in revenue from drivers who fail to properly register their vehicles, so a couple of years ago it began focusing more on tracking down these scofflaws.

"We think it's going to be worth it," said CHP Officer Mike Harris. "So far the results are encouraging."

That's good news for many of the thousands who keep their tags current after moving here from another state and longtime residents infuriated by the number of vehicles they see with tags that can be several years old.

The program is dubbed CHEATERS -- Californians Help Eliminate All The Evasive Registration Scofflaws -- and lets people report them over the Internet.

Once basic information -- including the license plate number and make and model of the vehicle -- is entered at www.chp.ca.gov, the CHP uses use a nationwide computer system to track down the owners and send letters demanding they pay overdue fees. Don't pay and you could be fined up to $1,000 and sentenced to six months in jail.

No one is certain how many of the state's 33 million vehicles are properly registered, but police are convinced it's a major problem.

The average cost of registering a vehicle in California is $143 annually, but the tab for a new $50,000 vehicle can run as much as $400. That's more than twice what a driver would pay in Oregon and most nearby states.

Vehicle registration is a major source of revenue for county and city governments, totaling more than $4 billion a year, and helps to fill potholes, and fund medical and health programs and the DMV.

The CHP initiated a similar crackdown in the 1990s and recovered about $7 million in back fees over several years. But the program took off when a lone officer in the CHP's South Sacramento office began chasing down suspected scofflaws in nearby parking lots. He helped recover more than $44,000 in the first quarter of 2002. Then in 2003, the amount exceeded $360,000 from him and a handful other area cops.

Newcomers who own a vehicle registered in another state or country need to obtain a California registration within 20 days after establishing residency here. They do that by voting in an election, paying resident tuition at a state college, filing for a homeowner's property tax exemption or getting a driver's license or, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles, "any other privilege or benefit not ordinarily extended to nonresidents."

When the program was announced, not everyone was thrilled. Scott Johnson, of San Francisco, said, "Nobody likes a tattletale. Snitching on your neighbors is a hallmark of a totalitarian society and has no place in a free country."

And the program has loopholes. A driver from Oakland was on Interstate 580 last week sitting in traffic waiting to merge onto I-80, when he realized that the car in front of him had Nevada plates eight years past due on its registration.

"Yup, the plate had an '06 sticker on it," he said. "How is it possible that she has gone eight years without being noticed by a police officer?"

But the large number on Nevada plates represents the month registration is due, not the year. So the registration was likely for June and not 2006.

And members of the military can drive their out-of-state cars when based in California.

Plus, California attracts tons of tourists who, for weeks at a time, escape harsh winters by visiting relatives here.

Then again, Bay Area resident John Kruemp was following a pickup in slow traffic recently and noticed the license plate.

"It was from Idaho," he said. "OK, Idaho is a nice place. But, wait, what? The last registration sticker was from 2009."

Follow Gary Richards at Twitter.com/mrroadshow, look for him at Facebook.com/mr.roadshow or contact him at mrroadshow@mercurynews.com or at 408-920-5335.

The cheaters program
The CHEATERS program was established in 2004. The program has recovered $9,507,939 in lost auto registration fees due the state.
2013: $1,691,312
2012: $1,437,394
2011: $750,393
2010: $818,005
2009: $1,232,180
2008: $1,004,433
2007: $819,112
2006: $680,142
2005: $425,657
2004: $492,327
Source: California Highway Patrol

THE CHEATERS HOTLINE
Here is how one can report the owner of a vehicle suspected of not paying California fees.
  • Click on www.chp.ca.gov on the California Highway Patrol's home page.
  • Go to the right to "What's New in the CHP" and click on "cheaters."
  • Follow the directions. List the state or province in which the vehicle is registered. Get the license number, time and date the vehicle was observed, as well as the make, model and color of the vehicle. Also specify where the vehicle was observed.