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Financial scams? Look a bit farther south

Published June 21, 2004

Once again over the past year, South Florida appears to have cornered the market on the state's most outrageous scams.

- There's Fort Lauderdale's Mutual Benefits Corp., at one time the nation's largest viatical settlement company, which was cited for securities violations, fraud and misrepresentation. Ninety percent of its investors have been paid nothing.

- In March, five people were arrested on charges of systematically defrauding as many as 1,000 senior citizens throughout South Florida in an organized scheme to slide unwanted life insurance into policies. Within days of posting bond, one of the suspected organizers was rearrested on charges that he had resumed illegal activities.

- And then there's the family fraud case of Aries Insurance Co. in Miami, which tumbled into receivership. Four company officers - a father, two sons and a daughter - were charged with diverting more than $60-million from the company. One of the sons and a daughter were arrested trying to drive back into the United States from Mexico; the other two are considered fugitives.

With that kind of track record, South Florida has the dubious boast of nine of the entries in the annual Top 10 Fraud List compiled by the Florida Department of Financial Services.

The sole Tampa Bay area case: a Tampa medical clinic accused of hiring "runners" to solicit auto accident victims, then billing insurance companies as much as $100,000 for medical services that were never provided.

Nina Banister, a spokeswoman for the financial services department, said the list is voted on by investigators based on such criteria as cost and outrageousness.

She deemed Tampa's lack of entries the luck of the draw. "Last year, Tampa didn't even make the list."

But Banister said that does not mean the bay area doesn't have its share of fraud, deception and schemes.

"By no means," she cautioned, "should Tampa let its guard down."

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