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Staged accidents on the rise

Insurance fraud is aim of scofflaws

POSTED: August 30, 2007 5:03 a.m.
Automobile wrecks are a daily occurrance, costing insurance companies billion of dollars every year in paid-out claims.
While many are legitimate, there is a growing trend throughout the United States of fraudulent claims and “staged accidents.” These false claims increase the overall premiums those who are insured must pay out of their pockets.
According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, automobile-accident fraud is among the country’s most lucrative and widespread fraud crimes.
Georgia is among 48 states that classify insurance fraud as a crime and have specific statues written into the state’s penal code. The crime may be classified as a misdemeanor or felony depending on the claim.

Hinesville police
The Hinesville Police Department receives 25-30 auto incident reports a month and, according to Traffic Investigator Lt. Max McLendon, 15 of those reports are usually false claims. Not only is it an attempt to commit fraud against the insurance companies, but they are also considered a crime for filing a false police report. In both instances, they are investigated and are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
McLendon is one of six officers who comprise the Traffic Accident Investigation Unit for the HPD. They are a specialized unit trained to investigate auto incidents and determine the cause, who may be at fault and whether it is a legitimate case.
McLendon has 19 years of experience and said he has seen it all when it comes to false claims.
“What people don’t realize is we investigate each report that is filed within this unit,” he said. “Everybody in this unit is trained to know how to recognize what happened to cars. Based on what we see during our investigation, we can determine if the damage was done by another vehicle, by a tree, a pole, and we investigate every report we receive.”
McLendon said a recent trend within the city is the false report of a hit and run. He said most often people damage their cars and are then told they should file a report with the police department stating someone else hit their vehicle so they can file a claim and possibly have their deductible waived by the insurance company.
“What normally happens is an officer may take the initial report but then it is brought to our office for investigation or we may be dispatched directly to the scene. On some occasions, people will bring their car to us at the department and file a report. As we look at the vehicle and start the investigation, they will tell us what happened. But when we look at the car and see the evidence does not coincide with their report, we begin to question it further,” McLendon said. “Many times, we know they are not telling the truth and I will beg them to please be honest and tell us what really happened and we try and find ways to work with them.”
When they won’t tell the truth, he said, they are arrested.
“We have one case that we are currently working on where the insurance company had already paid the claim,” McLendon said. “When we completed our investigation we were able to prove it was a false claim and pursued charges. We informed the insurance company, who already paid out on the claim and they in turn pressed charges to recoup their losses and prosecute this individual. It went from being a misdemeanor to a felony case because of the amount involved.”
The Insurance Information Institute is recognized as a primary source of information, analysis and referral concerning insurance. They recently reported insurance fraud cost insurers an estimated $30 billion in 2004 and 2005. They found the most common type of fraud included “padding” or inflating actual claims; misrepresenting facts on an insurance application; submitting claims for injuries or damage that never occurred; and “staging” accidents.
Part of the process in prosecuting the individuals includes a full disclosure to the insurance company about how their own client committed fraud against them. “Usually the insurance company will cancel that person’s policy or they may pay a higher rate or as just indicated they may prosecute,” McLendon said.
“Either way, these folks end up with a misdemeanor or felony record, which may have been avoided if they just told us the truth,” he said.
On some occasions, McLendon will ask the person to go home and think about the accident and how it happened.
“I’ll give them one last chance to tell us the truth and sometimes they will come back the next day and tell us they lied about how it happened,” he said. “The truth is all we wanted and now this person will not be arrested, will not have a record, and we can assist him in any way possible within the law.”

Staged incidents
Lt. McLendon gave several examples of some of the recent false hit and run reports he received:
• A report someone bumped the rear end of a vehicle and damaged the taillight. The investigation finds tree limbs or pieces of a bush or leaves inside the taillight area, and there are no trees within the general area they say the accident occurred.
• A case where a woman said someone hit her car in the parking lot of Wal-Mart (a false report hot spot). Authorities determined the woman hit a tree outside the Live Oak Library in Hinesville. She had collected several pieces of the broken glass from the rear SUV window and took it with her to Wal-Mart. She parked the car and threw down the pieces of broken glass to make it seem as if she was hit in the parking area. McLendon said these were called “thrown-down incidents,” where people gather the damaged pieces and use them to stage the accident elsewhere. A majority of large parking lots have surveillance cameras police will view during their investigation. Often catching people in their own lies. When they checked the area where police believed the accident occurred. They found a lot of broken glass in the parking lot of the library, and a tree with some damage that matched the height of the vehicle window. She was arrested.
• A woman backed her car into a pole at Fort Stewart. She drove to the Hinesville Police Department to file a report but told the officers someone hit her car in a parking lot. Officers gave her every opportunity to tell the truth but she didn’t and was arrested for filing a false report of a crime. She later admitted she hit the pole in Fort Stewart and was told by a friend to file a report of a hit and run for the insurance claim.
• A woman claimed she felt a slight bump while driving in traffic, but did not stop to check it until she arrived at the store. She called police to file a report, but when officers arrived they realized she was not telling the truth. The entire back end of the car was totaled and she later confessed to hitting a pole.
 

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