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Staged auto accidents rise in Tampa

TAMPA — Staged auto accidents are on the rise in Florida, and it's causing car insurance premiums to rise, officials said Friday.

Tampa ranked No. 2 in the nation for questionable auto claims, according to National Insurance Crime Bureau statistics for the first half of 2009. Only Brooklyn ranked higher. And the Tampa Bay area ranked No. 4 in a similar comparison of metropolitan regions.

For years, most staged accidents in Florida occurred in South Florida, but after a focused crackdown there, numbers have risen in Tampa, said Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink. Last year, insurance agencies reported 190 questionable claims in Tampa to the bureau.

That will put the pinch on Tampa-area drivers, said Florida Insurance Council executive vice president Sam Miller. Insurance agencies will adjust their premiums accordingly, he said.

"It will cause insurance rates in the Tampa area to be the highest in the country," he said.

Statewide, Florida led the nation in suspicious claims reported to investigators, with a total of 1,062. Florida is a popular state for fraud because of its no-fault policy, said National Insurance Crime Bureau spokesman Frank Scafidi.

An Allstate spokeswoman estimated that, nationally, 20 percent of premiums go toward helping insurers cover the cost of fraud.

Cracking down on auto insurance and personal injury fraud is a top priority for the insurance industry this legislative session.

They're seeking to give state insurance fraud investigators the authority to pull over suspects, and they want to ensure that personal injury clinics are licensed with the state and owned by doctors.

That's an important piece because sometimes clinics are involved in the scheme, detectives said.

"If a clinic is owned by a doctor, chances are they're a bona fide clinic," Miller said.

In Florida, most staged crashes are carried out by a group of people who get together and plan a crash and then either carry it out or set up a scene to appear as if there had been a crash. Usually, no innocent drivers are involved, said detective Michael Hennessy, who investigates insurance fraud in Tampa for the Florida Department of Financial Services.

After the crash, the drivers often file for medical services.

"But they don't get the medical procedure," Sink said at a news conference Friday. "They pocket the money for themselves, and it could be thousands of dollars."

Local efforts to arrest people suspected of staging auto accidents were apparent this week. On Wednesday, Division of Insurance Fraud detectives arrested Guillermo Rodriguez Lopez in connection with a staged accident in Tampa. They believe he's part of a bigger ring, and Hennessy said he expects several more people will be arrested.

Last year, the Department of Financial Services arrested 334 people statewide for personal injury fraud, which includes staged auto accidents.

Times staff writer John Frank contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

Staged auto accidents rise in Tampa 03/05/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 5, 2010 9:26pm]

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