Opportunistic drivers are getting bolder as they try to get their hands on coveted handicapped parking permits.

They are stealing them, buying them on the black market and even using dead relatives' permits in an effort to park in close and sometimes free parking spaces, transportation experts say.

Officials in Maryland, Virginia and the District say they have enough anecdotal evidence, though no statistics, to show that motorists are taking permits and tags -- in a variety of ways -- to use for their own advantage.

Their selfishness leaves disabled motorists, who have real needs for close and convenient parking, struggling to get around town, said Derek Orr, director of the D.C. Office of Disability Rights.

Conditions for handicapped parking permits or plates
Lung diseases that requires use of a respirator
Class III or Class IV cardiovascular disease
Unable to walk 200 feet with stopping to rest
Unable to walk without a brace, cane, crutch, prosthetic device or other assistance
Requires a wheelchair
Loss of an arm, hand, foot or leg
Lost the use of an arm, hand, foot or leg
Other disabilities with an impact on ambulatory functions
Permanent impairment to both eyes
Source: Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration

"Anytime someone takes a spot because it's convenient, that causes tremendous hardship for people that do need that space at that time," he said.

Abuse typically begins after drivers receive their permits and the tags are shared by family and friends, or used by a caretaker when they're allowed to be used only by the disabled person to whom they were issued.

Permits have been stolen in Prince George's County and later sold for $50 apiece. And in some cases, motorists have used a dead relative's permit, according to John Townsend, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

"The placard is for the individual who applied for it," said Buel Young, spokesman for the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration. "If your mother has one, you can't borrow her car and use her parking placard."

Instances of abuse can be found all over town. Able-bodied patrons parked in handicapped spaces directly in front of a Giant Food store in Northeast on Friday morning, while an elderly woman with a cane and a grocery cart slowly walked deep into the grocery store's parking lot to get to her car.

And near L'Enfant Plaza, District officials found as many as 91 percent of the vehicles parked in metered spaces on certain blocks displayed a handicapped permit.

Almost all the vehicles were registered outside the District, leaving D.C. officials to suspect the culprits are commuters looking for free and convenient parking at work. It's enough to suspect abuse, according to John Lisle, spokesman for the D.C. Department of Transportation.

Experts say enforcement is the best cure for abuse, but the issue isn't simple because it's unfair to judge motorists using handicapped permits by looks alone.

There are plenty of invisible illnesses that qualify an individual for a handicapped permit, Orr said.

A seemingly able-bodied man at a Giant in Northeast D.C. explained that his heart condition causes shortness of breath. Walking from further out in the parking lot could be harmful to his health.

"The idea that everyone that has a placard has to use a wheelchair or a scooter is not true," Orr said. "But people assume they're lying."

Transportation officials throughout the region are trying to deter the abuse.

Montgomery County started its "Respect the Space" program in November 2011, a measure to educate motorists about handicapped parking issues and encourage motorists to respect handicapped spaces, said police spokeswoman Lucille Baur.

Other jurisdictions are considering adopting a pay-to-park policy used by Arlington County that requires disabled drivers to pay for handicapped spaces.

Alexandria officials considered adopting the program in the fall, and now D.C. officials are working on a similar program with its red top meters initiative. Of the city's roughly 17,000 metered spaces, one in every 10 would be designated for disabled motorists.

"We're working within what we can control, and that's pricing and time limits and removing the incentive for fraud," Lisle said. "If people have to pay to park, they're not going to be pursuing someone's placard to pay to park."