Staged car accidents and insurance fraud are on the rise in Southern California, and the National Insurance Crime Bureau and the Los Angeles Police Department are fighting back.
They made a movie.
Together they have produced four new high-definition videos presenting reenactments of typical car accident scams -- including one called "Swoop and Squat."
The NICB says the staged accidents are conducted by organized groups -- working in teams and often using multiple vehicles and drivers at a time -- to entrap unwitting motorists into forking over cash to pay for damage, and to defraud insurance companies by filing bogus injury claims resulting from the phony fender-benders.
"These illegal accidents are not only illegal and costly, but they also present a real danger to innocent drivers," said Joe Wehrle, the NICB's president and chief executive. "And without knowing what to look for, these innocent victims may not realize they were targeted."
The problem is particularly chronic in Los Angeles, which is "the staged auto accident capital of the U.S.," said Nancy Kincaid of the California Department of Insurance. "Because of the sheer volume of cars, and the density of the traffic, this is ground zero."
The LAPD-produced videos present four scenarios in which the targeted victim is made to look responsible for a rear-end or side-swipe collision. The teams of scammers may include multiple drivers in multiple cars, as well as "witnesses" on the sidewalk.
LAPD Det. Gary Guevara, who works in the auto fraud unit of the department's commercial crimes division, says the criminals prey on a certain kind of victim -- middle-aged, well-dressed, employed and driving a nice car that is likely to be insured.
Two bad guys in separate cars will pull into a lane in front of the victim. A third driver will pull up into the lane next to the victim.
The first driver will slam on his brakes, causing the second driver to slam on his brakes too. Meanwhile, the third driver will pull in close to the victim, cutting off his escape route.
The victim slams into the back of the second car. The first driver, who started the whole thing, speeds off. The third driver acts as witness. The victim, of course, doesn't know that the three drivers were working together.
The scam can also involve the collusion of auto repair shops, doctors, chiropractors and lawyers who are all participating. The car that the victim hits may be filled with passengers recruited to get "injured" and file claims.
In other cases, the criminal is working alone or with only a small team. Often the amount of the claim is so small that it's really not worth the insurance company's trouble to investigate.
In one new wrinkle, Guevara said, young Latino men on bicycles in the San Fernando Valley are throwing themselves in front of passing automobiles, then demanding small amounts of cash from the drivers.
"These guys are actually getting hit," Guevara said. "And the driver really thinks it's his fault. And since it's only $200, the average Joe is always going to pay the money and get out of there."
Guevara said police are also seeing an increase in staged accidents on area freeways, where higher speeds can make the practice deadly.
Why freeways? "No cameras," Guevara said. "These days, there's cameras on every street corner -- in the liquor store, outside the marijuana dispensary. That makes it easier to get tape that shows fraud. On the freeway, there's no tape."