New defense against staged car crashes: security cameras

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Seemingly lost in a residential neighborhood in Ontario, the motorist pulled his car into the intersection, slowly pulled back, then moved forward again before stopping in the middle of the street.

That’s when things took a strange turn on a sunny September afternoon in 2021. The driver stepped out of the car and, once he was a safe distance away, a second car deliberately smashed into the side of the abandoned vehicle.

The scene was captured on video by a security camera mounted at a nearby home. After an investigation of the incident by the Inland Empire Automobile Insurance Fraud Task Force, five people were charged with felony insurance fraud.

The insurance industry says all types of insurance fraud, from doctors submitting inflated Medicare bills to drivers claiming fake injuries, cost the public dearly — more than $300 billion in 2021 alone, according to the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud. There’s no precise way to track the number of staged car crashes or to quantify their costs, but the coalition estimates that fraud occurs in about 10% of the losses related to property damage or injury.

Often, the staged collisions involve unsuspecting drivers who are hit deliberately by fraudsters, then blamed for the injuries supposedly suffered in the accident. But sometimes everyone involved in the crash is in on the con; that’s what authorities have alleged about the five people charged this month in the Ontario case.

Here’s how security cameras can help curb these sorts of crimes.

About three years ago, as staged crashes appeared to be surging during the pandemic, the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud joined the American Property Casualty Insurance Assn., the National Insurance Crime Bureau and the American Trucking Assns. on a public information campaign about this type of fraud.

Commercial vehicles are among the most common targets of the con, given that they typically carry at least $1 million worth of insurance, said Matthew J. Smith, who recently stepped down as the coalition’s executive director.

For their part, trucking associations are encouraging members to install dashboard cameras, which can be used to help combat fraudulent accident claims, Smith said. Similarly, he said, a growing number of Uber and Lyft drivers — another favorite target of fraudsters because they tend to be heavily insured when on the app — have installed outward-facing cameras.

Senior citizens are also prime targets of such scams, Smith said, sometimes with disastrous results. A staged wreck in 2003 claimed the life of Alice Ross, an 81-year-old grandmother in Queens, leading the state of New York in 2019 to make it a felony to cause a collision for the sake of an insurance claim.

Smith said the number of staged collisions “is increasing again, and it is very, very serious.” But he believes the proliferation of security cameras on buildings, such as Ring doorbells and motion-activated driveway cams, is helping authorities crack down on such crimes.

In the Ontario case, a woman told police at the scene that she’d been the victim of a hit-and-run collision, according to the California Department of Insurance. Witnesses to the collision, however, told police that she had arrived there after the crash.

The security video showed that the drivers of both cars had fled the scene before police arrived, the insurance department said. “The investigation revealed the five defendants had staged the crash and filed an insurance claim that could have resulted in a payout of over $30,000,” it said.

The five people accused were Priscilla Carmona Arajo, 29, of Fontana, who was arrested Monday; Juan Barajas, 25, of Upland, who was already in custody on an unrelated case; Gabriella Cervantes, 52, of Rancho Cucamonga, arrested Jan. 16; Roberto Carlos Macias, 40, of Chino, arrested Jan. 11; and Humberto Ortiz, 32, of Ontario, arrested Tuesday.

Camera video also led to the arrest in March of Christopher Phelps, 40, of Yucaipa, and his wife, Kimberly Phelps, 40, on multiple counts of insurance fraud, assault with a deadly weapon and child endangerment. But the couple, who pleaded no contest in May, did themselves in: They posted to a YouTube channel devoted to car wrecks and road-rage incidents their own dashboard camera videos of collisions involved in 17 fraudulent claims, the insurance department said.

According to the insurance department, state lawmakers have determined that a significant share of the auto-insurance fraud is committed by organized groups in the state’s major urban centers. These crime rings can involve not only the drivers and passengers in the cars that stage the accidents, but also lawyers, doctors, chiropractors and body shops that support the false claims.

“This fraudulent activity endangers the safety of the public and drives higher insurance premiums in certain urban and low-income areas of the state,” the department says on its website. During the most recent period for which there are statistics — July 2021 through June 2022 — the department’s fraud investigators made 167 arrests and referred 193 people to prosecutors. The potential loss from the alleged fraud was more than $4.8 million.

The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office devotes a page of its website to recognizing and guarding against staged collision fraud. According to the district attorney’s office, signs of a potential fraud include:

  • People involved in the collision leaving the scene while you exchange information with the driver.
  • Seeing rubber tires or other passenger-cushioning objects inside the car that hit you.
  • The driver of the other car asking for your wallet to copy your driver’s license and insurance card.
  • A driver or passenger who refuses to reveal their personal information.

The district attorney’s office recommends taking photos of the vehicles and passengers involved in the collision, although it adds, “Never put yourself in harm’s way to take the photos.” It also suggests that drivers involved in a crash do the following:

  • Notify the police about any collision that causes an injury or death.
  • Call 911 if anyone claims to be seriously injured, and notify the Department of Motor Vehicles if there is more than $500 in damage.
  • Do not leave without obtaining the name, address, contact information, driver’s license number, license plate number and insurance carrier from each person involved.
  • Do not give anyone cash at the scene to try to settle the damage.
  • If you suspect you’re the target of a con, immediately call the police. And if you feel unsafe or threatened, wait in your car until the police arrive.

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