Insurance Fraud Is No Accident

It was the driver’s erratic behavior that caught the attention of USAA member Connie Summers. As she drove in the left lane of a four-lane highway, she noticed that the driver in the right lane kept staring at her, pacing his car to her speed.

Suddenly the other driver swooped into the left lane ahead of her and slammed on brakes, causing her to hit his car.

At that point, Summers did the right thing: She called her husband, the police and USAA. While she waited, she took photos with her cell phone camera and gave no personal information until authorities arrived. In the end, questioning by the police determined that the other driver was at fault for reckless driving.

The scams

What Summers experienced is a variation of what is known as the Swoop and Squat. In this scam, the people in the car that was rear-ended file bogus injury claims, often claiming soft-tissue injuries (such as whiplash), which are difficult to confirm medically. Sometimes the scam involves more than one vehicle, with one of them swooping in, slamming on brakes to be hit by you and then hitting the car in front – creating two separate claims.

Other scams include:

  • The drive down (also known as the wave). This happens when you try to merge and the driver waves you ahead. But instead of letting you in, he slams into your car. When the police arrive, he denies motioning to you.
  • The t-bone. When crossing an intersection, a car speeds up from a side street and hits you. When the police arrive, the driver and a few planted “witnesses” swear that you ran a red light or stop sign.
  • The sideswipe. When you round a corner at an intersection that has multiple lanes, you drift slightly into the next lane. The car in that lane accelerates and hits you.

Avoiding the scams

Frank Scafidi, a spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau – a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting insurance fraud and crime – says the most important thing is to be aware of your surroundings and keep your wits.

“Often these scam artists are looking for single drivers, usually older drivers and more often than not a woman driving alone,” he says. “They look for nice cars, because that tells them that the driver probably has money and has good insurance.”

Another thing to be wary of is if the incident involves only you and another vehicle and suddenly there are several people showing up as witnesses.

“That’s a pretty good indicator that it’s a staged accident, and the other people are working with the scam artist,” says Scafidi.

Loretta Worters, vice president with Insurance Information Institute, calls staged accidents “a dangerous criminal activity that targets innocent drivers with increasingly bold schemes aimed at defrauding insurance companies.”

How big is the problem?

While some of the clauses and options in insurance options – Personal Injury Protection, Uninsured Motorists, Underinsured Motorists, to name a few – can help ward off the personal cost to you, the underlying cost of insurance fraud is much larger.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, staged accidents cost the insurance industry about $20 billion a year – which gets passed onto the consumer in the form of higher premiums at an average of $100-$300 per car per year.

Even without cases of caused or staged accidents, fraud alone is costly. The Insurance Research Council estimates that 24% of auto injury claims may contain fraud, which can add about $4.5 billion annual to auto injury settlements.

Scafidi says the problem of insurance fraud due to scams is growing.

“We look at questionable claims that member companies refer to us and that gives us somewhat of an indicator of how big the problem is,” Scafidi says.

What you can do

Aside from using standard defensive driving techniques, such as allowing room between you and the driver ahead, there are some actions you can take to avoid being a victim.

“There isn’t an insurance policy that can protect you completely from fraud,” says Shay Gause, Director of Claims Security for USAA. “What you can do is stay alert and aware. And by all means, call your insurance company immediately.”

Scarfidi recommends gathering as much information on the scene as you can, including the height, weight and ethnicity of the other driver and passengers.

“Take photos of the vehicles, any damage, the license plate, everything,” he says. “Carry a disposable camera in your car if your cell phone doesn’t have one.”

Try to obtain:

  • The driver’s name, driver’s license number, address and phone number.
  • Vehicle registration number.
  • Vehicle identification number (usually on the dash on the driver’s side of the car).
  • Insurance information.

In addition, always be sure to:

  • Call the police, even if the damage is minimal and especially if something doesn’t seem right.
  • Never settle on site with cash. Report everything to your insurance company, and be sure to inform them if you have suspicions.
  • Never disclose too much personal information to avoid identify theft.
Published on USAA’s member site (not bylined)