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FORT WORTH A yearslong investigation by a Tarrant County Sheriff's Department task force to help has found that nearly 240,000 vehicles are using illegal or invalid inspection stickers throughout its jurisdiction.

The numbers are nearly as noxious as the fumes from the cars that remain on the road despite being unable to pass an emissions test.

'We estimate conservatively 20 percent are either fraudulent, counterfeit or fictitious,' says Tim Canas, commander of the Tarrant County Sheriff's task force. 'Before we started doing the enforcement on it, none of us knew how big this problem was. How big a criminal enterprise it is. It is huge.'

Until now, the Emissions Enforcement Task Force has run under the radar since its formation two years ago.Officials are now revealing results. They busted nearly 40 inspection shops, netting 77 arrests. About $80,000 in cash has been seized as well as 57 cars and equipment used to inspect vehicles.

'There are 35 analyzers we've seized with our warrants,' said Canas, standing amid dozens of confiscated machines at a county impound lot.

Canas said they expected to find crooks printing fake stickers, which has been a problem in other counties. Instead, they found shops hooking analyzers to surrogate clean cars to pass for dirty ones.

Investigators raided three used car dealers for allegedly using the system to put stickers on clunkers to be sold to unsuspecting customers. Canas says the dealers accounted for most of the fraud.

Suspects are being charged with felonies, including tampering with a government document and organized crime.

Investigators say the goal is not to catch crooks, but to clear the air.

Email jdouglas@wfaa.com

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