It's part of a statewide effort to break up rings that stage crashes and defraud insurers.
By JEFF HARRINGTON
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 29, 2000
TAMPA -- A statewide crackdown on criminal rings that stage auto accidents for insurance money has shifted from Miami to Tampa.
Florida authorities have charged 22 people who allegedly staged more than two dozen auto accidents in the Tampa Bay region and then bilked insurance companies out of $200,000 in phony medical claims.
Nineteen of the suspects are from the Tampa region and three are from Miami-Dade County.
Between early Tuesday and midday Wednesday, 14 people had been arrested on varying counts of grand theft and insurance fraud, both third-degree felonies. They face from five to 30 years in state prison. Eight others are still at large.
Filing a fraudulent auto claim for personal-injury protection (PIP) coverage "appears to be the fastest-growing insurance rip-off," Florida Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson said Wednesday. "We're going to hammer away at this until we find and prosecute all those involved."
The Tampa charges come less than a week after investigators arrested 51 suspects in Miami-Dade after a yearlong investigation into another staged-accident scheme.
Different people were involved in the two probes "but it's barking up the same tree," said Department of Insurance spokesman Nina Bottcher.
The Tampa group allegedly staged about 30 accidents, all set up as low-speed crashes of junk cars. After crashing vehicles in out-of-the-way locations, they moved the cars and debris to a public roadway before calling police, investigators said. No property damage claims were filed.
In the Miami case, runners were paid between $500 and $750 to solicit real accident victims on behalf of medical clinics, officials said. The clinics, in turn, filed phony claims until they collected the $10,000 limit of PIP coverage under the individual auto policies.
In Tampa, those filing medical claims were part of the ring's leadership, officials said; no real accident victims were recruited.
The bay area investigation began three years ago after a local insurance agent contacted the fraud unit about a suspicious policy purchase. Investigators working under cover eventually were recruited to pose as accident victims.
Tampa residents arrested so far include Leonardo Carralero, 48; Lisiahana Bermudez, 42; Valorie Guzman, 33; Sandra Kilpatrick, 29; Gustavo Perez, 44; Isidro Ledesma, 49; Nelis Labanino, 58; Bianca Ponce, 41; Ledis Tous, 41; Frank Masso, 27; Ana Villegas, 47; and Benjamin Labanino, 50. Also arrested were Daysel Saiz, 28, of Hialeah and Patricia Villegas, 31, of Miami.
Bottcher would not discuss whether the suspected leaders were among those picked up so far but indicated the investigation was continuing. "The logical next step is to find out how they got these claims filed," she said. "They couldn't do it alone."
Nelson's office for at least two years has urged tighter controls on medical clinics viewed as pass-throughs for phony claims.
A statewide grand jury investigating fraud in late 1998 recommended that all medical providers, including storefront clinics, be regulated and licensed. It also suggested that insurance companies be required to verify that doctors and clinics aren't phony before paying claims.