Dr. Alex Petro claimed to be disabled because of a car accident in Hillsborough County. So disabled, he told insurers, that he couldn't even cut his grass or take out the garbage. He collected more than $300,000 in disability payments.
But when Petro was arrested on prescription drug charges, Pinellas sheriff's deputies took a closer look at the chiropractor's background. They noticed something the original accident investigator hadn't: The driver of the beer truck that hit Petro's Cadillac lived at the same address in St. Petersburg as Petro.
That and other findings piqued the interest of an insurance company. It began monitoring the 46-year-old doctor to see if he was as disabled as he claimed.
In 2008 Petro was arrested again — this time on a felony charge of insurance fraud.
Petro is among the hundreds of people arrested in Florida in the past three years for what chief financial officer Jeff Atwater calls an epidemic. His is the kind of case that vexes investigators in a state that ranks No. 1 nationally in auto insurance fraud. Questionable claims and staged traffic accidents are estimated to have cost consumers nearly $1 billion.
And Tampa leads the state in staged wrecks, with 487 last year. Only Brooklyn had more.
While investigators focused on South Florida, "fraud flourished in an environment when no one was watching,'' says Ron Poindexter, regional operations director of the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
"The area was ripe, the economy bottomed out and crime sort of migrated up from South Florida and now is as well entrenched in Tampa and Orlando as in Miami,'' Poindexter says.
The bureau, which investigates suspect claims for the insurance industry, used to have one agent in Tampa. It now has five, plus two intelligence analysts. They were joined this year by a squad from Florida's Department of Financial Services.
A tempting payoff
Investigators know the telltale signs of staged accidents. New insurance polices. Vehicles with minor damage. Drivers and passengers in financial straits.
Florida law requires motorists to have personal injury protection (PIP) that typically provides $10,000 per person for medical bills, regardless of who is at fault. As a result, the most common auto fraud in Florida is PIP-related, with fake victims paid a few hundred dollars to use certain clinics.
"They go to the clinics and pretend they are being treated and the clinics will turn around and bill the insurance companies $10,000 for massage therapy,'' Poindexter says. "We find in most cases none of that is provided and if it is provided, it is one or two times and they bill 25 times.''
Investigating auto-related fraud has its challenges. In Florida, drivers sometimes speak little or no English. And they often wait to call police until witnesses have left and vehicles have been moved off the road, making it harder to tell exactly what happened.
In a recent accident, the drivers acted like strangers. But, Poindexter says, "one of our agents went on Facebook and found them talking to each other.''
In the past three years, 667 people have been arrested in Florida for PIP fraud, and 408 have been convicted on various charges that can mean up to 30 years in prison. Due to beefed-up enforcement, 114 arrests have been made since January alone.
Investigators are now looking at a Tampa ring estimated to have reaped millions of dollars in insurance payouts over the past several years.
This year, industry experts say, Florida drivers will pay an average of $83 more in annual premiums because of fraud. In hot spots like Tampa and Miami, the increase could be $300 or $400.
"We're talking about a very serious problem and it's a great economic impact on our citizens,'' says Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober, who has two prosecutors dedicated to auto fraud cases. "It needs to stop because it's costing us all money.''
A clue overlooked
Petro declined to comment. But his case raised red flags for fraud investigators.
In 1998, Petro declared bankruptcy with more than $90,000 in debts. Yet by 2004, he had a walk-in clinic in St. Petersburg and a Cadillac Escalade with the license tag BACPAIN.
Shortly before noon on July 6, 2004, Petro was driving on State Road 60 in eastern Hillsborough County when he was rear-ended by a Pepin Distributing truck driven by 36-year-old Robert Chambers.
By the time a Florida Highway Patrol trooper arrived, both vehicles had pulled off the road. Damages were relatively minor — $4,000 to the Cadillac and $1,000 to the truck.
The trooper didn't notice that the men's licenses showed the same address: 2785 Bayside Drive S in St. Petersburg.
According to an affidavit later filed by state fraud investigator James Kappel, Petro began receiving chiropractic treatments soon after the accident. On Dec. 30, 2004, he told Northwestern Mutual Insurance Co. that he was totally disabled and no longer able to work at his clinic, Doctor's Urgent Care.
But the clinic appeared to thrive. It drew hordes of customers as word spread that its employees liberally dispensed prescriptions for OxyContin, Valium and other drugs.
In May 2006, after numerous complaints and the overdose death of at least one patient, authorities raided the clinic and arrested six people, including Petro. He pleaded guilty to possessing OxyContin and two other drugs and was put on five years' probation.
As their investigation continued, sheriff's detectives got a copy of the 2004 accident report. They discovered that Chambers, the beer truck driver, rented a room from Petro. They also learned that Petro was "fraudulently billing various insurance companies.''
One of the insurers, Illinois Mutual Life Insurance, questioned Petro's disability claim and demanded he repay $237,031. The company gave investigators copies of canceled checks showing he received $332,825 in disability payments between November 2004 and May 2006.
A friend's help
In July 2007, investigators secretly videotaped Petro as he ran errands in his black pickup with a BACPAIN tag and "Petro Construction Group'' printed on the sides.
At one stop, Petro, who had a general contractor's license, loaded several boxes of tile into the pickup. He also carried heavy bags of grout, seemingly without effort.
In late 2008, Petro was arrested and charged with filing a false and fraudulent insurance claim. Posting his $10,000 cash bond was none other than Robert Chambers, the man who rear-ended him.
Chambers says the accident was just that — an accident. He says he and Petro were friends, and decided to have lunch that day because Petro was in his delivery area.
As they headed to the restaurant, Petro led the way "and I was probably following too closely,'' says Chambers, who was charged with careless driving. "I can see why somebody would come to that conclusion (that the accident was staged), but it absolutely was not.''
Chambers, now attending a Caribbean medical school, says he didn't get any money from the crash.
Petro pleaded guilty to the fraud charge in 2009 and received five years' probation. It was terminated this year after he paid $38,734 in restitution to Northwestern Mutual Insurance, one of the companies that questioned his disability.
Petro would not say what he is doing now. His chiropractic license has been revoked and his contractor's license is inactive. But in November, he sent an e-mail to a biker's blog, asking if he could volunteer as a team member for the Baja 1000.
The race, across Mexico's rugged Baja California peninsula, is often called one of the world's toughest off-road competitions.
Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.