You're driving home from work through downtown Los Angeles when a crowded car suddenly pulls in front of your new BMW. Seconds later, another car speeds up, cutting off the first car in front of you.
The driver slams on the brakes. You slam on yours, but everything happens so quickly, you end up rear-ending the car in front of you.
To make matters worse, the vehicle that triggered the accident flees before you can get a license number.
Your nightmare is just beginning. You've been scammed in what is called the classic "swoop and squat" caper, says Frank Scafidi of the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
Because that vehicle can't be found, your insurance company will likely have to pay the vehicle damage and personal injury claims.
And if the scammers involve dishonest doctors, lawyers and auto body shops, these crooks could possibly make off with thousands of dollars in fraudulent collections.
Angelinos are particularly at risk of auto accident scams. A recent analysis by the NICB ranked Los Angeles No. 2 among the top U.S. cities with the most staged accident scams involving fraudulent automobile and medical insurance claims. Miami was first. Other experts say the scams may be increasing.
In Los Angeles alone, LAPD Det. Ron Vega says, the scams have increased 25% over the last five years.
In a major bust last November, the suspected ringleader of a Southland "crash for cash" auto fraud ring was arrested for allegedly staging more than 60 automobile collisions and bilking insurers and consumers out of $2 million to $3 million, according to California Department of Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi.
A Huntington Park attorney is accused of filing false claims for members of the collision ring after they caused dangerous crashes with innocent victims. Twenty-three other suspects were arrested in the alleged scam.
Nationwide, automobile insurance fraud accounts for an estimated $14 billion in bogus claims, according to the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, an independent public interest group. The estimate includes scams involving sophisticated auto fraud rings, says James Quiggle, coalition spokesman.
The California Department of Insurance reports that from 2002 to 2005, it received 21,760 suspected fraudulent claims statewide, some involving staged accidents.
Nearly half of those claims (9,616) came from Los Angeles County, says spokeswoman Carrie Reinsimar. In L.A. County, there were 173 arrests and 93 convictions, according to insurance department data.
These crimes are on the rise because it is extremely difficult to prove that an accident has been staged and "suspects are becoming more innovative in the process of scheming against insurance companies," Vega says.
So many drivers engage in reckless maneuvers on the road that it is difficult to determine whether an accident was intentional or occurred because of negligent driving.
Also, police used to routinely respond to and investigate accidents. Now, the LAPD and many other law enforcement agencies won't investigate a crash unless there's an injury. Without a police presence and investigation, criminals have a better chance of defrauding insurers with bogus claims, Vega says.
"A lot of fraud could be nipped in the bud if every insurance company's investigative units had the resources to come out and do reinspections after the vehicle has been repaired by a body shop before it is released to the owner," Vega says.
Dishonest body shops can cheat consumers and insurers by charging for unnecessary repairs, he says.
These crimes are on the rise because it is financially lucrative for the crooks. Even low level participants can make $10,000 or more for assisting a staged accident.
Some organized auto fraud rings are so complex they involve hundreds of willing participants, including unscrupulous lawyers, doctors, chiropractors, auto shops, tow truck operators, ambulance drivers, police officers and insurance company employees, according to NICB investigations.
"Cappers," the key individuals in an organized ring, recruit people to fake injuries and participate in the schemes. Poor immigrants are often recruited to participate in the fraud because they lack language skills and are unfamiliar with U.S. laws and don't realize they are engaging in criminal activity, Quiggle says.
Scammers monitor emergency calls and even pose as newspaper reporters to gain access to information about accidents and victims who they may want to recruit for insurance fraud.
Vega said he worked a case in the early 1990s that involved a group that used children to brush up against vehicles and then claim they had been injured. One child who participated in the incidents died after being crushed under the wheels of a vehicle, he recalls.
While insurers and law enforcement officers stress that insurance fraud hurts consumers by raising premiums, there are many who have no qualms about ripping off the "big bad insurance company," says Allstate Insurance spokesman Pete Moraga. Some people view insurance fraud as a victimless crime.
But arresting and prosecuting those who perpetrate staged accidents is critical, Scafidi says. Derailing these accident rings "may save the life of another scam victim in the future."
Jeanne Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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How to avoid being a victim
* Carry a disposable camera. After an accident, take shots of the driver and passengers, witnesses and damage to the vehicles.
* Maintain sufficient distance from the vehicle in front of you to allow ample braking time if the vehicle stops suddenly.
* Beware of witnesses who suddenly appear with information that is not accurate. They may be part of the scam.
* Take down all license and insurance information and all the names of passengers. Some staged accident claims add additional people who were not present at the accident.
* If you suspect the accident has been staged, notify police. You can also inform the National Insurance Crime Bureau at (800) 835-6422 or its website, www.nicb.org.