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Carmentary

Rear-End Collision Has the Scammers Falling All Over Themselves

February 28, 2001|MICHELLE MALTAIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The day of our first rain this season, I had my first auto accident. The jolt to the car was significant, but even more so was the education I got.

The Toyota Corolla I was driving, with my mother as passenger, was rammed by another Corolla. The impact mangled the rear of the car, pushing most of the metal into the trunk.

Almost before the cars stopped rocking, people were pushing business cards for auto body shops through the car windows and offering to "help."

The moment I hung up from my 911 call, a tow truck pulled up. The truck driver tried to persuade us that the police weren't coming. But I insisted on waiting, anticipating that the police--who did indeed show up--would help guide me through the process. They didn't.

Now, I consider myself relatively sophisticated. And though this was my first accident, I've run through such scenarios in my head since the day I got my driver's license. And my mother has at least three times the life experience that I have.

But together, we did just about everything wrong.

We didn't call either of the two tow services we pay for with insurance premiums and auto club dues.

Then, we didn't ignore the tall, attractive hero-type who started lobbying my mother, the car's owner, gaining favor with her while I was preoccupied with exchanging insurance information and talking to the police.

Tony, as he called himself, said his body shop was just around the corner and was affiliated with California Casualty, my insurer. What good fortune, we thought. (He must have overheard me saying that I was going to call California Casualty.)

Mostly because the police didn't dissuade us, we agreed to have the car towed to Tony's shop. Another big mistake.

By the time we arrived, Tony had persuaded mom that we should hire a lawyer--his lawyer. In fact, the law firm's paralegal was already waiting for us when we arrived at the shop.

Despite my objections, my mother decided to hire his firm to represent us. Another mistake.

As it turned out, everything about this ordeal--from the tow truck to the lawyer--was questionable.

The tow truck was not summoned by police or our insurance company. The driver most likely heard about the crash by monitoring a police scanner, which is illegal in Los Angeles, says Dan Brogdon, claims investigations manager for the Auto Club of Southern California.

Tony was most likely a "capper" or "runner" for the body shop. These are basically freelancers soliciting business for the shops and lawyers in league with them, Brogdon says.

And Tony lied about his affiliation with my insurance company. If we had been thinking clearly, we would have called the insurer from the scene to verify the relationship.

Finally, the law firm Tony steered us to suggested the doctors we should use--a sign that all might not be on the level.

As it turns out, the tow truck operator, the body shop and the lawyer who first tried to "help" us are under investigation by authorities for involvement in questionable activity regarding traffic accidents.

By connecting dazed motorists with crooked body shops, lawyers and doctors, the tow truck drivers and runners get thousands of dollars in kickbacks. Generally, these teams work to cheat insurance companies by submitting inflated claims.

In the end, we found another lawyer who was able to break our link to this chain and get our car moved to another shop.

"You need to stick to the basics: Call the authorities; call your insurance company," says Jeff Spring of the Auto Club of Southern California.

If we had told police that we hadn't called the tow truck that was there when officers arrived, they probably would have ordered the truck driver to leave.

As for me, well, even though the worst injuries in this experience have been to my ego, I'm trying not to beat myself up too much.

As Brogdon says of these insurance scam operators, "They are very good at what they do."

*

Times staff writer Michelle Maltais can be reached at michelle.maltais@latimes.com.

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