Ready, Set, Wreck
The stage is set at a shadowy intersection in a North Miami neighborhood. This is the meeting place for a group of young people characterized by a diversity of backgrounds and unified by a precarious plan -- to jam the system by scamming cash from auto insurance companies. The first step is to manufacture a car wreck. That's where a burly, dreadlocked Haitian named Jean-Claude (all names in this story have been changed) comes in. He's a "runner," someone who recruits people to participate in orchestrated "accidents" for the purpose of filing false claims against personal injury protection policies. He brings together an assembly of people not normally found doing business together. But when easy money is involved, it's not unusual to find white Hispanic college students from Kendall teaming with hustling African-American teens.
"Most of the people who take part in these fake crashes are obviously people who could use extra cash, so of course you're going to have a lot of immigrants, young people, and people from working-class neighborhoods like Hialeah and North Miami, easy targets for the runners," explains Capt. Steve Smith of the Florida Department of Financial Services Fraud Division.
One of tonight's participants is Robert, a 22-year-old Cuban marketing major at Florida International University and part-time telemarketer who met Jean-Claude through a co-worker. Robert is a sucker for a good scheme. He admits that sometimes he's a sucker, period. So when Robert met Jean-Claude in person (since telephone conversations are "heat-ups," because of potential cop taps) under a poster of the Hamburglar at a McDonald's in Miami Lakes, it didn't take a Madison Avenue presentation to get Robert to volunteer his Honda Civic as Car A, the at-fault position. He'll be the one sued for pain and suffering by everybody else involved. Why would he do that? Presumably to get more money than the others.
When the accident is staged, somebody's got to take the ticket. In this case, the runner gives that person $1500 up front, plus a piece of everybody else's settlement. Robert is told to expect $12,000 to $20,000, while the others are promised about half that.
"It seemed like the perfect scheme. Everybody banks, nobody gets hurt, and almost everything is taken care of for you," Robert explains. "I was like, 'Sign me up.'"
Robert could convince only one friend to sign up with him. And since Jean-Claude makes money per head, not per car, he's forced to coerce a couple of round-the-way fellas to ride in the back of Robert's Civic at the last second. Both of those guys would've rather stayed home playing video games but reluctantly give in to a demanding Jean-Claude, a force to be reckoned with in this neighborhood.
The other half of this operation, Car B, is a Nissan Sentra belonging to a teenage black girl, which lugs her and three of her girlfriends. They don't say much to either of the fair-skinned Spanish speakers present, but by the tone of their Kreyol, Robert can tell they just want to get this metal-on-metal production over with and start looking forward to payday. The final components are the platinum-toothed, do-rag-wearing "stunt" drivers who work for Jean-Claude. They do the actual ramming.
It's close to midnight on a warm Florida winter evening when Jean-Claude takes off in his Lexus SUV to scout for the perfect spot, preferably a "T" intersection or four-way stop. He communicates with the drivers via cheap walkie-talkies. Attention to detail doesn't guarantee a smooth execution. Once the cars take their routes around the designated block, one clockwise and the other counterclockwise, Robert's Civic almost hits the wrong car. Then two hesitant collisions don't cause quite enough damage. On the verge of hysteria, passengers -- four in each car -- and drivers brace for a third spine-jarring impact.
That's when Robert voices his second thoughts about the whole idea. But the driver in control of the Civic unapologetically informs him: "Too late now, we done did two tries already." Finally, at a stop along NE 163rd Street, a loud crunch signals success. Jean-Claude whisks his drivers away while instructing those conspirators remaining to "call the cops and get your stories straight."
The escapade takes one more nerve-racking turn when a North Miami Police patrol arrives on the scene (75 minutes later), and the officer begins to wonder.... Why are Robert and his friend, two well-dressed Latinos with Kendall addresses, riding with a couple of 50 Cent-looking black teens in this particular neighborhood? Drugs? No, no narcotics are found. One of those "fellas" who wanted to stay home in the first place is in fact arrested on a misdemeanor bench warrant. Eventually the cops let everybody else go, the actual crime undetected.
Make no mistake: This type of scheme is highly illegal. In October of 2003 Florida enacted a law making all car insurance fraud, including staging automobile accidents, a second-degree felony with a minimum sentence of two years and a max of fifteen.
"This is the help we've been waiting for; we hope this new statute helps fight this crime with actual jail time," the fraud division's Captain Smith explains. "Prior to then we were making arrests, including entire rings, and they would all be bargained down. That doesn't convince anyone to testify against the clinics and attorneys who are instrumental in encouraging this crime."
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."