Truck driver Luis Guillermo thought it looked funny when he saw a car dart in front of another car on the Foothill Freeway in Lake View Terrace two weeks ago. The second car had to brake abruptly, causing an 18-wheeler to hit it from behind.
"It looked set up," said Guillermo, who was driving in an adjacent lane. "I wasn't sure at first what happened. The more I thought about it, I was convinced it was set up for insurance fraud."
So Guillermo wasn't surprised to hear recently that law enforcement agencies were investigating a growing number of intentional accidents in Los Angeles and Orange counties in which small cars cause big trucks to hit them. Fraud rings favor trucks because they are certain to carry insurance.
Guillermo, 31, was one of about 50 truck drivers who attended two training sessions on staged accidents conducted Saturday by the California Highway Patrol and a Pacoima trucking firm, National Business Group. None of the drivers said they had been involved in a staged accident, but many reported close calls under suspicious circumstances.
"This guy seemed almost disappointed I didn't hit him," said Ron Coste, 32, describing a driver who suddenly stopped in front of his truck, but then sped off. "I missed him by an inch. I think he wanted it."
Saturday's training seminars--one in English, the other in Spanish--came a month after a North Hills man was killed in what police describe as a staged accident on the Golden State Freeway in Sun Valley. Jose Perez, 29, was a passenger in a car that was struck from behind by a car carrier. The car's driver and two other passengers now face fraud and murder charges.
Most intentional crashes, called "swoop and squat" cases, involve three vehicles that box in a truck to the left, to the right and out front.
The "swoop" car, which is on the truck's left, abruptly changes lanes to the right, forcing the "squat" car in front of the truck to brake. The truck crashes because the third car prevents it from swerving right to safety.
"We're starting to see about one suspicious case like this a week," said CHP Officer Marcy Blackmore, who led the seminar.
Blackmore gave the truckers tips on how to avoid such accidents and how to spot a scam if a crash has already occurred.
Blackmore encouraged the drivers to carry cameras and to photograph all accident victims. CHP investigators can later check whether any of the passengers were involved in other suspicious crashes, perhaps using different names.
Squat cars are typically cheap, older model cars, and the occupants rarely carry personal belongings because they are prepared to spend some time in a hospital, Blackmore said. Women passengers don't carry purses.
"It's just the passengers and nothing else, which is unusual," Blackmore told the truckers. "Most people have a lot of items there."
If the cars don't look "lived in," a scam may be in the works. "They basically use junkers worth less than $1,000," she said.
Unless something goes awry and a passenger suffers broken bones, the occupants complain of head, neck or back injuries, which are difficult to verify, Blackmore said. The passengers then split the settlement money--typically $5,000 per passenger--with ringleaders and sometimes dishonest doctors.
Blackmore also advised the truckers to drive slowly and always in the right lane. But several said a well-organized fraud ring could easily trap them on crowded freeways. "You can only hit the brakes and pray," said one trucker, as others nodded in assent. "There are too many cars out there."