Ready, Set, Wreck

Everyone makes bank in cash-for-crash insurance scam

Clinics specializing in auto accident injuries bill the insurance companies for medical visits. Lawyers negotiate settlements for one-third of the pot. According to Captain Smith, "The clinics and lawyers are the chief sponsors of these enterprises." Unscrupulous lawyers and clinic owners pay runners such as Jean-Claude as much as $2000 an accident and provide reimbursement for the at-fault ringer. Runners, clinics, and bodily injury lawyers are the spokes of a wheel spun by lucrative accident-related cases.

A day after the roadside production, Jean-Claude refers Robert and his pal to a certain clinic. Upon arrival, the receptionist says she was expecting them. Here the intrepid schemers deal with an element far removed from the one that choreographed the accident. A clean office in West Miami-Dade is quietly bustling with polite medical assistants and a hip, fit Anglo chiropractor, who explains neither Robert nor his friend will be charged the usual deductible, about twenty dollars a visit, on the condition they show up 56 times over the next 90 days. Once their insurance information is processed, treatment begins: warm waterbeds, hot wraps, and Robert's favorite, massages. A month into the treatment the clinic itself sets up a meeting with a bodily injury lawyer's middle-age Cuban paralegal. Robert and his friend meet with the paralegal and leave together, high-fiving on the way out.

According to Robert, the most amusing thing about this phase of the scam comes when every clinic and attorney's office employee asks him, "By whom were you referred?" He always answers, "Jean-Claude." The response never fails to be an emphatic "never heard of him."

"Plausible deniability -- that's why it's hard to bust clinics, and lawyers especially," Captain Smith explains, admitting no lawyer has been arrested or served with a search warrant within the past two years, "but we're building cases. They're insulated, the runner serves as a buffer, though the new statute should force some people to testify against the higher levels of the totem pole."

According to fraud division investigator Lt. Michael Shea, manufactured car crash scenarios involving runners, lawyers, and chiropractors evolved from the more passive practice of ambulance chasing. Some attorneys monitored police scanners for authentic accidents. Soon many began to produce their own accidents, while the state's no-fault protection statutes made it easier for more, often poorer people to file claims.

Shea recalls a 1996 case involving David Ledo. He was a runner who admitted to staging 200 accidents throughout Hialeah in less than two years. He worked for several lawyers. Ledo was paid $56,000 by one of them alone, Joseph Roca. Shea believes this case was landmark not because it sent any culprits away, but because the two men were convicted, cited in close to 150 cases directly tied to them. No one did serious time because of the state's lax laws.

"That was an eye-opener. It made people realize we can't stop a rampant crime without tougher laws," Shea says.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners reports that honest Florida drivers pay $200 per person per car insurance policy for this crime. The director of the state's Department of Financial Services Fraud Division, Bob Neumann, estimates that a whopping 80 percent of accident-related insurance claims in Miami-Dade County are phony, equaling hundreds of millions of dollars in payouts.

Robert doesn't think the law should come down on him. He didn't make as much money as he thought he would. Other than his friend, nobody else from the night of the accident has given him cash. He looks on the bright side: "I did get three months of free massages."

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