Old Jack City

There's no place like Miami for the car insurance runaround

"Now please hold while I transfer you to an adjustor."

I hold. And hold. And hold. The smooth jazz track plays. The chirpy voice returns. The jazz. The chirp. Jazz. Chirp.

One hour passes. Then another. The phone is pinched between my shoulder and my ear.


Three hours after my initial call, a surly unidentified woman asks for my claim number. After a minute or two, she announces that that claim number is not yet in the computer.

"Call back in 24 hours," she tells me.

"But what about my rental car?" I ask.

"Call back in 24 hours."

I plead with her. Don't make me listen to that music again.

"I'm sorry, ma'am."

That was September 12. The hit and run was September 11 (I know). From then until October 8 I walk, take the bus, hop the jitney, bum rides, hire cabs, rent cars. Whenever I have three or four hours to spare, I call Aries.

On Wednesday morning, September 18, a woman named Isa walks me confidently through the process: An appraiser will come to my house for an estimate (he does, on Friday, September 19); I'll take the estimate to an auto shop (I do, on Monday, September 22). Then Aries will pay the shop (it doesn't).

On September 25, I'm told the adjustor has just received the estimate (how come I received the estimate by fax on September 19th?). On September 27 I'm told the estimate is waiting to be approved. On October 2 the car is ready. But that day a woman at Aries named Ileana tells me that the adjustor has just received the estimate. Are these people lying to me?

Ileana cracks, her voice as desperate as my own.

"We're in rehabilitation, ma'am. The state took over [the business] because there was too much PIP fraud," she reveals, meaning Personal Injury Protection, the coverage of up to $10,000 for immediate medical costs no matter who is at fault. Turns out Miami has long led the state in PIP fraud, with people deliberately causing or faking accidents and clinics inventing clients just to collect. "Your claim is moving relatively quickly," Ileana insists. "Some have been sitting here for months."

Months! I call my agent, who gives me the number for the Florida Department of Insurance in Tallahassee. A man with an accent as thick as gator soup gives me the bad news.

"It sounds like you're gettin' the runaround, ma'am, because they don't have any money," he drawls. "I can understand that this sounds distressing to you, but you must understand that you will be paid. It may take a year, but you will be paid."

Seems I was not the only one getting the runaround. In a statement released by the Florida Department of Insurance on November 8, State Treasurer and Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher says, "Because of the delay tactics employed by Aries' principals and their attorneys, body shops are threatening to sell policyholders' cars for nonpayment." The solution for a company with $50 million in assets and $100 million in liabilities? According to Gallagher, "Aries should do the right thing and agree to be liquidated."

Is it true the company's failure is due to Miami's high fraud rate? "Well, that's part of it," says DOI spokeswoman Nina Bottcher, "but we are investigating."

The DOI attempted to rehabilitate Aries beginning last May, processing between 600 and 800 piled-up claims a week in order of urgency. Medical needs are addressed first, says Bottcher, then hardship cases.

"Like a mother with three kids and one car in the shop," she says.

Wait a minute, I'm a single mother with one car in the shop. No one ever asked me about hardship!

Bottcher sighs. "It's not a perfect situation, clearly, or the company wouldn't be in rehabilitation."

But are these people trained to give clients the runaround?

Bottcher breaks down; she asks for my claim number.

The next day I receive a call from my adjustor, Liliana Velez, to say she has my check in the works. Coincidence?

"Isn't that funny," says Bottcher later that afternoon. "All I did was say I wanted to know what was going on with that claim."

While I wait for my check, I see Roger repairing a Volvo across the street and a Sentra for sale around the corner.

"That situation over there is always going to be a problem," says a sympathetic Officer Carrero when I call to ask him about the police report. Will the police do anything about it?

"I think it's Team Metro that handles that type of thing," Carrero says.

Do informal repair shops and car lots hurt legitimate auto businesses in the area? Tony Menfi, the owner of the shop that fixed my car, isn't too worried. "I guess so," he laughs, gesturing toward all the county certificates on the wall. "You're supposed to have all your licenses, but walk down any street in Miami and you're going to see one or two cars up on jacks."

Just like my street. When I walk to the corner, Roger tells me that he recently sold a truck and a BMW and has plans to sell his current ride, a Ford Probe. But when I ask him if his clients pay in cash he smells trouble.

"You're putting all this in the newspaper?" he says, squinting. "Let me be clear. I do not sell cars. I do not fix cars. I do not have a dealership. Look over there, I don't got room for cars."

And that is the unenforced law of the county.

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