09 March 2012

Be careful if that friendly motorist motions you to go!

That friendly motorist motioning you to go could be the motorist who deliberately runs into you and causes an accident! By taking that friendly motorist's offer of letting you go, you are setting yourself up to be a victim of staged auto accident fraud.

After all, the Tampa/St. Petersburg area is the capital of staged auto accident fraud in Florida, surpassing the Miami/Ft. Lauderdale area. Why should you care?

Staged auto accident fraud costs law abiding motorists such as you and I millions of dollars every year. We pay for staged auto accident fraud in the form of higher premiums paid for auto insurance, as the insurance companies have to shoulder the loss for fraudulent claims. Add to that Florida's mandatory $10,000 Personal Injury Protection (PIP) and the stakes get higher.

In Florida, PIP insurance coverage is required of every Florida vehicle owner. PIP was designed as immediate financial relief for those involved in an automobile accident, without the need for costly litigation in the courts. Unfortunately, the fraudsters know how to exploit PIP to their benefit.

With our economy being so poor, more and more people are looking for ways - unfortunately illegal - to make a quick buck. The solution is simple: Deliberately cause an auto accident for the sole purpose of collecting off of the other party's insurance policy and use the proceeds to help make ends meet, such as paying the monthly mortgage.

There are several ways that a staged auto accident can be caused. One of them is what I have been seeing while I am out and about, and it is called the "drive down". This is how it works:

OK. You are coming up to a four-way stop sign. You know the law: The first to stop is the first to go at the four-way stop. You approach the four-way stop and you are not the first to stop - instead, someone in an SUV to your right stopped first.

As a part of required driving behavior in this case the driver in the SUV is the first to go - in other words, the SUV driver has the right of way. So, you let the driver of the SUV go. Instead, the driver of the SUV motions you to go.

You take the friendly gesture of the SUV driver and go. The next second, as you cross the intersection the SUV driver pulls out straight ahead and rams you broadside! Luckily, due to the low speed on impact you sustain no injuries but your side airbags deploy. You call 911 to report the accident.

Law enforcement shows up to assess the damage and write a report. When the law enforcement officer interviews the SUV driver, the SUV driver will falsely claim that he or she did not motion the driver to go despite the fact that you told the law enforcement officer that you were motioned to proceed by the SUV driver only to have the SUV driver hit you.

We now have our first criminal offense committed by the SUV driver: False report to a law enforcement officer. Now that the SUV driver made that false report, he or she gets a copy at the scene and the SUV driver reports the accident to the insurance company. Voila! Instant $10,000 made fraudulently from your insurance company - not the SUV driver's insurance company! The criminal offenses keep adding up.

Sometimes people that commit staged auto accident insurance fraud will have an accomplice, usually traveling in another vehicle. In our four-way stop case let's up the ante a little bit:

As a part of required driving behavior at the four-way stop the driver in the SUV is the first to go - in other words, the SUV driver has the right of way. So, you let the driver of the SUV go. Instead, the driver of the SUV motions you to go.

You refuse, insisting on you letting the SUV go first because the SUV had the right of way to begin with in the first place. Before you know it, you have someone behind you honking their horn and angrily telling you to go, even though you did not have the right of way to begin with. (And besides, it's unsafe). With the motorist angrily telling you to go, you proceed and - as you cross the intersection - the SUV driver rams you broadside while the driver behind you that angrily told you to go sits there and watches everything unfold.

When law enforcement arrives to do the accident report, the motorist driving the SUV and the motorist behind you that angrily told you to go will lie in their statements by saying that neither one motioned the motorist to go. Unfortunately, it's legalized lying to law enforcement. Ding! Collect your $10,000 fraudulently from the motorist's insurance company! (And help pay your mortgage!)

There are three other methods of staged auto accident fraud besides the drive down, according to this article I found on about.com:

The Swoop and Squat: A motorist cuts off the vehicle ahead of you, forcing the motorist ahead of you to stop. You have no room to stop, and you hit the vehicle just ahead of you. The passengers in the vehicle that you hit - thanks to the actions of the driver of the vehicle further ahead of you - put a claim on your insurance policy by lying about bogus medical conditions just to get more money.

The T-Bone: Let's say you are on 110 Av N in the Gandy area of St. Petersburg headed west towards Martin Luther King St N. As you pass the driveway entrance for Camden Apartments, someone to your right coming out of the apartment complex speeds it up and hits you. Unfortunately, the "witnesses" are recruited by the driver that hit you; when the St. Petersburg Police Department shows up to do the accident report these so-called "witnesses" state that you ran a stop sign when in fact 110 Av N is a through street.

The Sideswipe: This is common at intersections with multiple left or right turn lanes. However, I have been seeing a variation of The Sideswipe waiting to happen at the intersection of 110 Av N and Martin Luther King St N in the Gandy area of St. Petersburg. I have seen two, three or even four motorists at a time camp out in the center median waiting to make a left turn from 110 Av N onto southbound Martin Luther King St N, especially to get to Roosevelt Blvd. (FL 686). As the southbound lanes of Martin Luther King St N clear, one of the motorists makes the turn and as soon as the motorist starts turning, another motorist next to the motorist turns and the result is a sideswipe.

How many times have I seen the St. Petersburg Police Department out there investigating an accident at 110 Av N and Martin Luther King St N? Are people who live in the apartment complexes in the Gandy area of St. Petersburg in a hurry to get to work on time? Or are people that are trying to make the monthly rent trying to make some extra money by illegally staging an auto accident?

To those of you in the apartment complexes in the Gandy area that see me not enter the intersection of Martin Luther King St N at 110 Av N until the way is fully clear (and without camping out in the center median), I will not fall for your tactics in forcing me out into the median or blowing your horn angrily at me when I am driving safely and within the law. If you succeed in sideswiping my vehicle on purpose by being in a hurry to get to work on time or any other excuse, you are not collecting off of my insurance and you are not going to win a lawsuit. Any act of staged auto accident fraud will be investigated, both by my insurance company and by law enforcement. So there.

At least something is being done to help combat staged auto accident fraud. Just recently, the Florida Legislature passed a measure that would reform Florida's PIP law, according to this St. Petersburg Times article. Among one of the reforms, insurance companies would be allowed to examine a policyholder under oath if fraud is suspected. Whatever tips off an insurance company to the sign of potential fraud is up to the individual insurance companies.

Now what should you do if you ever get involved in an accident?

1. Call 911 and request assistance. (For those of you with OnStar (the best help device out there since the invention of the motor vehicle), press the red OnStar button to speak with an OnStar emergency representative. After all, the representative, using GPS technology, will pinpoint your location and dispatch the help that you need.)

2. Wait for law enforcement to arrive. If the other party attempts to intimidate you in any way, stay in your vehicle and don't answer the other party's questions. The presence of the law enforcement officer can help defuse an escalating situation.

3. Give your own side of the story to the law enforcement officer. Tell the officer what exactly happened. If the officer directs you to remain in your vehicle, do so. Present your driver's license, vehicle registration and proof of insurance when requested - in Florida, it's the law.

4. If permitted to do so (and if you have a digital camera), take pictures of the damage. However, don't risk your own personal safety, especially if the other party is belligerent or aggressive.

5. The law enforcement officer will give you a copy of the report at the scene. Hang on to this report, as you will need it when you contact your insurance company.

6. Call your insurance company and report the accident. Follow any instructions that the insurance company may give you so that your claim can be processed.

7. As for medical and legal professionals as well as car rental companies and car repair shops, whoever you go to is your choice. Don't let your insurance company steer you to a particular professional or company for what you need.

8. If, however, your insurance company is mistreating you in any way during the claims process, then it is your right to speak with an attorney. Most attorneys will give you a free consultation either over the phone or in person and will take your case on a contingency basis. As with hiring an attorney for any legal matter, find out what the costs are before you sign the retainer contract.

And I can't close out this blog entry with the most important safety tip of all:

Please drive safely. Don't tailgate and if you have to be somewhere at a given time, leave in plenty of time to allow for traffic delays. And put down that cell phone, BlackBerry or other communication device; that most important phone call or business transaction can wait until you have arrived safely at your destination.

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