Out of work? Want to make a quick buck or thousand? Your neighbors are. At an astonishing pace, they're faking car crashes for profit.
Florida ranks first in the nation in questionable insurance claims from staged accidents, says the National Insurance Crime Bureau. And Tampa tops the list of cities in Florida. Questionable claims in Tampa shot from 125 in 2008 to 487 in 2009, and continued to climb in 2010, which suggests this is happening here at least every day.
Why? Florida's personal injury protection law pays up to $10,000 in medical claims for a person hurt in an accident without declaring fault, one of 12 states with such a law.
The scam: Participants plan a crash. They fill a car with four or five passengers in order to file multiple claims. After the wreck, they go to a clinic and sign blank forms for treatments they'll never receive, and their insurance company gets billed. Long story short, your insurance goes up.
South Florida used to be the capital of deliberate crashes. Illegal immigrants agreed to participate to pay off debts. But a crackdown down south seems to have pushed criminals north.
There are other reasons.
"We go over and over this all the time internally," says Frank Scafidi, spokesman for the NICB. Economy. Bad job market. And Tampa's diversity may be a factor. The NICB has noticed that certain ethnic groups — Croatian, Russian, Cuban, Mexican — perpetrate fraud in large numbers, suggesting they're organized.
"They recruit others," Scafidi says, "by enticing them into thinking, 'Hey, here's a way to make a fast buck.' "
Last year, the NICB opened its second Florida task force bureau, right here in the vortex of fraud. Investigators are busy, and you're about to notice more billboards, bus shelters and radio ads alerting us to fake accidents. It's too early to tell if the new task force has had an impact.
Scafidi says you should trust your own intuition if you're involved in a crash. If something seems strange or improbable, take notes and photos. They may come in handy.
Ben Montgomery, Times staff writer