|GALLAGHER UNVEILS A NEW PHASE IN ONGOING ANTI-PIP FRAUD PUBLIC EDUCATION CAMPAIGN|
Announcement follows the arrests of members of a staged accident ring
Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher unveiled plans for the newest phase of an ongoing public education campaign aimed at ensuring those who might participate in staged accidents and auto insurance fraud know that the consequences include time in prison and driver license revocation.
He revealed the campaign plans following the arrests of 22 of 39 individuals in Miami believed to have been involved in a ring that staged at least a dozen auto crashes and fraudulently billed insurance companies for $1 million. Twenty-five members, if convicted, will face a minimum mandatory sentence of two years in prison for organizing the staged crashes, and up to 15 years in prison on all charges.
“These individuals staged car crashes and faked injuries,” said Gallagher, who oversees the Department of Financial Services. “But the costs are very real – hundreds of dollars in additional costs each year on the backs of Florida families.”
In the last five years, the Department of Financial Services, Division of Insurance Fraud, has arrested more than 800 people in connection with at least $23 million in Personal Injury Protection insurance fraud. Florida drivers are required to carry a minimum of $10,000 in PIP coverage and $10,000 property damage coverage. By staging accidents, the planners and participants, usually in connection with unscrupulous clinic owners, target the PIP insurance of drivers, and fraudulently bill auto insurance companies for injuries and treatments that never happened.
Gallagher is promoting legislation to address the latest spin on PIP fraud – accidents that never happen. The legislation would establish a two-year mandatory sentence for accidents that happen only on paper or single-car accidents reported as hit-and-runs.
Today’s arrests are the culmination of a six-month investigation by the department, the special investigative units of the insurance companies and the National Insurance Crime Bureau. Florida’s PIP prosecutor Nina Vivenzio, of the Dade County State Attorney’s Office, is prosecuting the charges.
The 53-year-old suspected ringleader Wilfred Cyriaque, also known as “Lopez” or "Blanc," of 1120 NW 111 St., Miami, is charged with 51 counts each of insurance fraud and grand theft, four counts of staging an accident, and organized scheme to defraud. Investigators believe Cyriaque may have staged as many as 90 crashes during the last several years.
Cyriaque and 24 participants have been charged under a new law designed to combat staged accidents, which took effect October 1, 2003. State fraud investigators have now arrested more than 40 individuals under the new law and, in Miami alone, are actively investigating more than 50 other fake crashes believed to have occurred since October 2003.
Omar Lantigua-Gonzalez, the first person convicted under the new mandatory sentencing law, was sentenced last September to two years in state prison. In what is known as the Hialeah Hummer case, he used a Humvee to damage several vehicles that he and other participants later said had been struck in a hit-and-run incident. And last Tuesday, six of seven alleged members of another staged accident ring in Miami were arrested.
“The pace of these crimes is staggering,” Gallagher said. “We are very grateful for the two-year minimum sentencing law and our dedicated prosecutor. Together, they are having a significant impact.”
Vivenzio, the state’s first dedicated PIP fraud prosecutor, began in March 2004. PIP fraud-related arrests – based on charges filed by Vivenzio – increased 25 percent in 2004 over 2003, from 155 to 201, and convictions and jail time also were up.
“The tools to fight this crime should be as strong as possible, and I appreciate the work the Legislature has done to enact minimum mandatory sentences,” Vivenzio said. “The more aware the public is of these minimum mandatory sentences, the more likely would-be perpetrators will take notice.”
Vivenzio’s position is funded by the Florida Automobile Joint Underwriting Association, who is also sponsoring the department’s public education campaign along with the Florida Insurance Education Foundation, a Tallahassee-based organization.
The information cards and posters, also available in Spanish, will be distributed to police stations in Miami, Miami-Dade and Hialeah, insurance agent offices, auto tag agencies, community colleges, traffic schools, retail outlets, community centers, churches and numerous state and county offices. The message will be bolstered by public presentations at traffic schools, community centers, churches and government organizations.
The Division of Insurance Fraud was assisted in making arrests by Miami-Dade Police RID, Hialeah Police Department, North Miami Police Department and the Department of Corrections. The following insurance companies also assisted: include Allstate, Bristol West, Budget, Direct General, Federated National, First Liberty (Liberty Mutual), FAJUA (Illinois National – AIG), Ocean Harbor, Progressive, Republic Western, Southern Group, State Farm and US Security.
LIST OF SUSPECTS IN PIP FRAUD ROUNDUP
The Division of Insurance Fraud has arrested the following so far for participating in this staged accident ring. (* Means the crash occurred after the mandatory minimum sentence law took effect.)
Staged accident 03/19/03 - Fraudulent claims in excess of $60,000:
Staged accident 05/07/03 - Fraudulent claims in excess of $261,000:
Staged accident 07/17/03 - Fraudulent claims in excess of $51,000:
Staged Accident 08/03/03 - Fraudulent claims in excess of $123,000
Staged Accident 09/03/03 - Fraudulent claims in excess of $18,000
Staged Accident 09/10/03 - Fraudulent claims in excess of $21,000
* Staged Accident 10/06/03 - Fraudulent claims in excess of $64,000
* Staged Accident 11/01/03 - Fraudulent claims in excess of $231,000
* Staged Accident 11/22/03 - Fraudulent claims in excess of $29,000
* Staged Accident 12/07/03 - Fraudulent claims in excess of $64,000
* Staged Accident 12/16/03 - Fraudulent claims in excess of $38,000
These participants were previously arrested in 2004 for a staged accident on 08/10/03 with fraudulent claims in excess of $40,000:
The clinics used included:
El Portal Medical Center, 8642 NE 2 Avenue, El Portal