53 arrested in insurance sting

Prosecutors announced the arrest today of 53 Orange County car mechanics and auto body shop owners, including two from Huntington Beach and one from Fountain Valley, accused of defrauding insurance companies.

Between January and May this year, undercover district attorney investigators conducted the largest auto body repair insurance fraud sting in county history, dubbed Operation Straight Body.

Among those arrested was Huntington Beach Body Works shop owner Richard Evans, who is the star of Speed Channel’s “Chop Cut Rebuild” show and has been featured on “Monster Garage.” Ronald Dean Campbell of Orange Coast Auto Body in Fountain Valley and David Brian Prukop of Prukop’s Auto Body and Paint in Huntington Beach were also on the list.

“Insurance fraud hurts every Orange County family because insurance companies pass the cost of fraud on to their customers,” said Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas. “In Southern California, having cars and car insurance is not a luxury, but a necessity. We rely on cars to and from work and school. In a down economy, having affordable insurance is vital to families on a budget.”

Using two cars already totaled by their previous owners’ insurance companies, investigators shopped around repair work for a 2001 Ford Expedition and a 1999 Mercedes Benz E430.

The Expedition was missing its rear bumper and had a dent on the rear hatch. The Mercedes had been rear-ended and the left side of the bumper wasn’t attached to the car. There was also a large dent to the right side fender near the front.

In each case, the investigators sought repair estimates from auto body shops with a history of complaints. The catch: Investigators with the Expedition asked mechanics if they could repair everything and list it under one insurance claim, even if the damage was done in separate incidents. Investigators used the Expedition in about 80% of their cases.

Those who agreed to file all the repairs under one claim were arrested on a felony count of insurance fraud.

With the Mercedes, mechanics or shop owners were told some of the damage to the car was there when they bought the car through an auction, but wanted it repaired and listed under their insurance claim. Those who complied were arrested, officials said.

All defendants in the operation face up to five years in prison, but will likely get a lighter sentence.

“This prosecution puts dishonest operators and anyone thinking of committing fraud on notice. We are watching them and they can be prosecuted,” Rackauckas said. “If a shop is willing to commit fraud against an insurance company, they are willing to commit fraud against customers. They should be concerned.”

Most of the accused were arraigned today or will be arraigned Friday. Court records on how they pleaded were not immediately available.

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