A four-year investigation ended Friday with 12 arrests, and more expected, in connection with a million-dollar auto theft ring that allegedly ripped off car dealerships and insurance companies in the Los Angeles area.
The California Department of Insurance said charges have been brought against 17 people in Los Angeles and one in Fresno.
The ring, according to the state agency, used phony credit cards and bogus bank accounts to purchase 21 high-end vehicles -- including cars made by Mercedes, Audi, BMW and Lexus -- from 18 different Los Angeles dealerships.
They insured the vehicles and crashed them, the Department of Insurance said, in staged wrecks that often involved multiple vehicles driven by members of the ring. They then made insurance claims on the damage and defaulted on the loans. Three of the cars were exported out of the country.
Twelve of the alleged car crooks are in custody following early morning arrests. Two are making arrangements to surrender and four are still being sought, a spokesperson for the state agency said. Among those arrested are a husband-and-wife team, the agency said.
Members of the alleged ring are being charged by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office with theft of a vehicle by false pretenses, insurance fraud, grand theft from insurance companies, perjury on Department of Motor Vehicle documents and giving false information on government documents.
"Insurance fraud is a multibillion-dollar drain on the California economy that results in higher insurance premiums for California businesses and consumers," said state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones. "This organized ring filled their pockets by ripping off insurance companies and auto dealers."
The multi-agency investigation, dubbed Operation High End, originated in the Fresno office of the Department of Insurance, and went on to include assistance from the agency's offices in Valencia, Los Angeles, the Inland Empire, San Diego and Orange County.
The arrest sweep involved more than 100 officers, the agency said, at locations in Van Nuys, Glendale, North Hollywood, Los Angeles, Sunland, Granada Hills, Panorama City and Fresno.
Agencies participating in the arrests included the Los Angeles Police Department's Task Force for Regional Auto Theft Prevention, Ventura County's Auto Theft Task Force, the California Highway Patrol, the Franchise Tax Board, and members of the San Bernardino County and Riverside County district attorney's offices.
Eleven insurance companies were hit with phony claims, the agency said, including Geico, Farmers, Progressive, Ameriprise, Unitrin, State Farm, Nationwide, Allstate and Wawenesa.
Names of the dealerships were being kept from the public for now, the agency said, because the investigation is ongoing.