TAMPA — Some faked car crashes. Others filed false insurance claims. On Thursday, deputies issued warrants for 53 people accused of working one of the fastest growing scams in the area — personal injury fraud.
Detectives raided four clinics they say filed thousands of dollars in fraudulent insurance claims. They arrested clinic owners, massage therapists, crash participants and recruiters accused of setting everything up.
Services billed by clinic owners were unnecessary and often not provided, deputies say. But everyone walked away with cash.
Experts suspect hundreds of similar clinics currently operate in Hillsborough County, a national hot spot for staged crashes. Only the totals in Brooklyn, N.Y., surpass those of Tampa.
The Sheriff's Office started investigating in September 2009 after noticing a string of suspicious crashes.
Since then, Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner has joined the crackdown. He's working to create an ordinance requiring personal injury protection insurance clinics to be licensed and employ a physician.
In February, he listened to citizen comments on a draft. Deputies note that one of their suspects spoke against it.
Back then, Liza Pereyra, owner and manager of Recovery Rehabilitation Services at 7025 W Hillsborough Ave., told commissioners that increased regulation would put a costly strain on legitimate clinics like hers.
On Thursday, deputies arrested Pereyra, 28, on a felony racketeering conspiracy charge.
They searched her business and arrested a receptionist and therapist. It was Pereyra's first arrest in Florida, state records show.
Deputies have made similar roundups but say Thursday's was different because they arrested clinic owners and office managers, not just crash participants.
After the first roundups, the Sheriff's Office recruited informers who helped undercover detectives infiltrate the operations.
"That allowed us to go further," said Chief Deputy José Docobo.
Authorities say several physicians are under investigation.
"It's so lucrative," said Ron Poindexter, a local director for the National Insurance Crime Bureau. "It's a personal slush fund for certain individuals."
And it's a burden carried by the honest. This year, he said, Florida motorists will pay an average of $83 more in annual personal injury protection premiums because of fraud.
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.