Tampa's Ron Poindexter, the multistate operations director for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, must feel like he's playing the world's biggest game of Whac-A-Mole. Fraud in Florida is popping up all over.
And the deep recession is only encouraging more of it as a way to make some money, despite the risks, in unusually tough times.
Take the state's epidemic of staged auto accidents - people who crash cars on purpose and seek medical claims via sham clinics off no-fault auto insurance coverage. Poindexter, 63, poured his own NICB investigative resources into Miami - ground zero nationwide, historically, for such fraud - and built a task force there of law enforcement, NICB and insurance company experts to try to staunch its rapid growth.
It worked. Staged accidents fled elsewhere in Florida.
Now Tampa is the No. 1 city in Florida, having seen a 290 percent jump in 2009 over 2008 when the city ranked third, according to NICB data released Monday.
Even at the national level, Tampa is second only to far larger New York City for staged auto accidents. Rankings are based on a national database of questionable insurance claims.
"Tampa second to New York City?" said Poindexter, who's also a former cop and ex-director of Florida's insurance fraud division. "Something's wrong here."
The surge in activity in this area, which Poindexter describes as Tampa Bay stretching along Interstate 4 to Orlando, spurred the creation of a second task force to be formed by July in Central Florida. Poindexter heads it until he names a director.
This fraud is so out of control, it generates more than $100 million a year in false claims in Florida alone. In this region, North Carrollwood is among the more prolific areas for staged accidents to occur.
That's one reason NICB stuck its message on an electronic billboard at the nearby corner of Dale Mabry and Waters Avenue. It shows a collision and says: "This was no accident! Report staged accidents" and offers this toll-free number: 1-800-TEL-NICB (835-6422).
How did Florida become the epicenter for staged accidents and medical claims? It gained traction in South Florida when illegal immigrants were told they could pay off the price of being smuggled into the country by faking injuries in staged accidents.
Most of all, criminals take advantage of the state's no-fault or PIP (personal injury protection) auto accident coverage. It makes up to $10,000 per person readily available to people who seek compensation once they go to a clinic for some type of treatment.
Poindexter says public parking lot "accidents" are also a huge source of fraud because the police are not physically involved in such cases. It all boils down to filling out paper forms seeking medical claims.
"Previous industry studies have shown that among the 12 states that have no-fault coverage, Florida had the highest rates of fraud and buildup in both bodily injury and personal injury protection," NICB's report states. Criminals who stage and deliberately cause these accidents "collect big payments with little risk of getting caught."
Who's paying for all this fraud? You are, to the tune of about a fifth of your policy premiums.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at email@example.com.
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Where staged accidents most occur in Florida: Top five Florida cities based on questionable claims
Rank 2009 total Percent increase vs. 2008 1. Tampa 487 290% 2. Miami 258 11% 3. Orlando 240 24% 4. Hialeah 98 42% 5. West Palm Beach 96 92%
In Tampa Bay
Tampa dominates the metro area based on questionable claims in 2009
2. St. Petersburg........18
5. Land O'Lakes ..........2
Source: National Insurance Crime Bureau