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Insurance-claims specialist Richard Wickliffe has seen just about every auto-theft insurance fraud Dade County con men can dream up. There's the chop shop fraud, in which an automobile owner reports that his car has been stolen after he has actually sold it for parts. There's the car-in-a-canal scam, in which a car is driven into a canal, then reported stolen. And there's the car-in-the-container hoax, whereby a car that's reported stolen actually has been shipped overseas for resale.

As South Floridians grow savvier about the mechanics of international trade -- in particular the steep sticker prices paid by friends and relatives in foreign countries -- this last hoax has grown more and more popular. While organized auto-theft gangs have been taking advantage of the booming overseas market for years, individual fraudsters are now following their lead, according to insurance investigators and law enforcement authorities.

Wickliffe, who looks into potentially fraudulent claims for State Farm Insurance Company's special investigative unit, has noticed a curious increase in the number of leased cars that are reported stolen. Confirming his suspicions: Some of the purportedly stolen cars had already been located by U.S. Customs officers -- tidily packed in overseas-bound containers before the police report was filed.

"I see it as a new trend," Wickliffe says. The perpetrators commonly fall into two categories. "There's the professional who may have some South American [smuggling] connections," he elaborates. "And there's the average citizen, the guy next door, who is in financial trouble or who has gotten in over his head, and he does something desperate."

Often the latter are victims of overweening automotive desires, people who can't afford to buy their dream machines and arrange to lease them instead. For as little as $1000 down, a fully equipped $50,000 Toyota Land Cruiser can be leased for a term of two to five years. But while anticipating the pleasure of driving a truly expensive car, potential customers overlook the hefty monthly payments, which can be as high as $800 a month. (Leasing a car differs from buying one, in that the customer pays for the use of the car, which continues to be owned by the dealer or the leasing company. The payments offset the amount the car depreciates in value over the term of the lease, plus the lessor's profit.)

Then reality kicks in. And because the total amount of depreciation is averaged into monthly payments over the term of the lease, customers who drive their leased cars for only a few months and then seek to return them are sometimes shocked to learn that the payments they've made so far haven't come close to covering the precipitous decline in value that occurred the minute they drove off the car lot: They still owe the dealer several thousand dollars. "They find out that you can't just walk away from these things," Wickliffe remarks.

"At that point they find someone who tells them, 'If you have that big of a problem, I know someone who can get rid of the car for you,'" reports Lamar Little, a special agent of the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a nonprofit investigative group funded by the insurance industry. This middleman, Little says, will typically offer to pay a thousand dollars or two if the person who leased the car will fraudulently report it stolen. Meanwhile, a professional smuggler arranges for shipment to Latin America, where a new car fetches double, sometimes almost triple, the U.S. sticker price. And the insurance company ends up reimbursing the leasing company for the lost car, and also covers any amount still owed by the customer.

"You and I are the victims," remarks Lt. Greg Terp of the Metro-Dade Multi-Agency Auto Theft Task Force. "If the insurance companies get hit, they pass that on to the consumer." According to Terp, slightly more than 55 percent of the 39,000 cars stolen in Dade last year simply disappeared. He believes many of those cars are now being driven on the highways and byways of Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and other Latin American countries.

Terp's task force does not keep figures detailing whether stolen cars had been leased or whether they were privately owned.

For professional auto thieves, the primary attraction of the leased-car scam is the low down payment. The car is also brand-new and thus more likely to attract top dollar from a fastidious Latin American customer. And for free-lance fraudsters, there is yet another advantage. As State Farm's Richard Wickliffe points out, insurance claims filed by leasing companies are almost never denied; most policies stipulate that the insurance company will cover replacement even if an adjuster suspects a claim is not kosher. In contrast, an individual owner who files a dubious stolen car claim may be turned down.

Florida law requires insurance companies to inform the state's Division of Insurance Fraud whenever foul play is suspected. But a shortage of state investigators means auto theft cases are often bounced over to local law enforcement agencies such as the Metro-Dade task force. Task force members, however, focus their resources on well-organized criminal groups rather than individual scammers.

Some perpetrators, of course, do get caught. "I had cases involving a police officer -- he was arrested," recalls Det. Les Cravens, a nine-year task force veteran. In 1993, Cravens adds, a secretary from Metro-Dade's homicide bureau reported that her Ford pickup had been stolen. The vehicle had been driven to Canada and was subsequently shipped to Lebanon, he later discovered. She, too, was arrested.

In May Cravens and his colleagues caught a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service employee after he sold his 1995 Infiniti to middlemen who'd promised to ship the car out of the country. The brokers, who were targeted by the task force as members of a larger gang, are still at large. The immigration officer later pleaded guilty to insurance fraud and was sentenced to 30 months' probation.

That outcome was typical. Although insurance fraud is a third-degree felony punishable by a maximum of up to five years in prison and/or a $5000 fine, offenders usually receive probation or are steered into pretrial intervention programs.

"It's enormously frustrating," acknowledges Lt. John Askins, of the state's Division of Insurance Fraud. "Unfortunately, we've had cases where we've arrested people four or five times and they continue to get probation. The system is bursting at the seams, and it's not really working properly.

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Elise Ackerman