TAMPA — These health clinics don't advertise. Some don't even have signs identifying them. But the people who visit know exactly what they're getting into, authorities say, and they don't care that there are no doctors or working X-ray machines.
They're there to commit insurance fraud, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office said.
An eight-month investigation of staged car crashes has resulted in arrest warrants for 22 people accused of insurance fraud, the Sheriff's Office announced Thursday.
The accused are top-level organizers, many of whom work at Tampa health clinics, sheriff's deputies said. They're the ones who recruit people to participate in the crashes. They tell the participants how to stage a crash and what to say to deputies at the scene, said Chief Deputy Jose Docobo.
Starting this fall, undercover detectives infiltrated four clinics they say existed solely to file fraudulent insurance claims.
But the Sheriff's Office believes there are 164 other similar clinics operating in Hillsborough County, Docobo said.
"Hopefully after today, every time they see a (staged crash) participant come through their doors, they're going to wonder if it's an undercover detective because this is not going to stop today," Docobo said.
Tampa is the second-worst city in Florida for questionable car crash claims — and local drivers are paying. Some insurance companies estimate that 20 percent of premiums are used to cover fraud.
Local law enforcement agencies have been cracking down on these rings. In recent months, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office has arrested 32 people they say participated in fake crashes.
The suspects are usually charged with participating in a staged auto accident and insurance fraud. But organizers also can be charged with felony racketeering, said prosecutor Wayne Chalu, who runs the economic crimes unit at the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office.
The three Hillsborough clinics where deputies made arrests are St. Isabel Medical Center, 2901 W Saint Isabel St.; West Waters Medical Center, 3550 W Waters Ave.; and Superior Injury Care, 1412 W Waters Ave.
At the clinics, the only medical personnel on staff were massage therapists. No doctors were present, Docobo said.
Deputies plan to make arrests at a fourth clinic, which they would not name.
Many of the staged crashes are set up this way: The participants meet ahead of time to plan the crash. Sometimes they cause damage ahead of time, which is then attributed to the collision. They fill the car that gets hit with four or five passengers in order to make money from multiple claims. But those passengers often get out just before the collision, then climb back inside. No one actually gets hurt, Docobo said.
The participants then go to a clinic and sign multiple blank forms for treatments that they'll never receive, and their insurance company gets billed.
The participants usually get $500 to $1,000 and the coordinators make between $1,500 to $4,000.
"It's a tremendous problem, and it's growing," said Ron W. Poindexter, who works for the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
He estimates that in Florida alone, insurance agencies lose hundreds of millions of dollars each year due to personal injury fraud.
In 2008, there were 141 possible staged crashes in Hillsborough County reported to the bureau. In 2009, there were 499.
"That's a 254 percent increase," Poindexter said. "We're getting overwhelmed here."
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.