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Insurers Say Crash Scams Are Increasing : Automobiles: Companies and some law officers say fraud rings leaving L.A. may be preying on well-insured Ventura County drivers.

November 27, 1992|PEGGY Y. LEE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The squat car will position itself in front of the victim--usually someone driving a late-model car that is likely to carry insurance--and narrow the distance between them. A second vehicle--the swoop car--approaches in the next lane and suddenly changes lanes to cut off the squat car. The squat car's driver then slams on the brakes, and causes the unwary motorist following to rear-end it.

In a swoop-and-squat scam, those staging the accident often have several passengers in the car. One of them gets out of the car and begins directing traffic to get rid of potential witnesses. Usually, no one claims an injury at the scene, and the victim exchanges insurance information with the stagers. Later, the victim receives a letter about whiplash, back pains or other injuries that are difficult to prove or disprove.

Car insurance fraud organizations, some as large as 100 people, are usually headed by doctors and lawyers, said John Millen, a spokesman for Farmers Insurance Group.

He said Ventura County motorists make excellent prey because they are more apt to let down their guard while driving in the suburbs. "There's more naivete; you don't expect it," said Millen, who used to live in Simi Valley.

Auto insurance fraud rings are branching into the suburbs because they know that authorities and insurance investigators are too distracted with organized criminal groups in Los Angeles to worry about places like Ventura County, said CHP investigator Sue Mustafa, who is based in Los Angeles.

"A lot of times these crooks think, 'I'll get a policy in Santa Barbara and get into an accident in L.A., and the people in Santa Barbara won't be familiar with the players,' " Mustafa said.

Rick Dinon, a senior vice president at 20th Century Insurance Co., advises motorists to drive defensively, and to call the police department and insurance company when an accident occurs.

One suspicious sign is a car carrying several passengers, he said. Dinon points out that Southern California drivers are not well-known for car-pooling. If a motorist suspects a staged accident, he recommends that the driver count the number of people involved and get identification for everyone.

Usually those staging an accident will claim "soft-tissue" injuries, such as neck pain or backache, that is difficult to verify, Dinon said.

"The medical bills are typically $3,000 to $5,000, and they'll ask for $10,000 to $15,000," said Donald Garrard, a Los Angeles attorney who specializes in defending insurance companies.

Garrard, who opened a branch office in Ventura four years ago, said that office's caseload has quadrupled since then. He said Simi Valley and Camarillo have produced a number of cases that insurers suspect as auto fraud. "We're so busy, we can't hire lawyers fast enough," Garrard said.

The insurance industry has only begun actively fighting suspected bogus claims in court in the last five years, Garrard said. Historically, it was cheaper--and often still is--to settle the claims rather than pay expensive legal fees to challenge bogus claims, he said.

On average, he said, it costs three to four times more to go to court than to settle.

"My clients won't like me saying this," Garrard said, "but the insurance industry is as much to blame as anybody. The insurance companies paid like slot machines. For years, and years, they just paid these claims."

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