Laws on Staged Auto Accidents
No one wants to be in a car collision. Well, almost no one.
Some drivers will intentionally cause crashes with the goal of receiving insurance money for exaggerated vehicle damage and phony injuries. Meanwhile, the innocent driver is potentially left with a blemished driving record and spiked insurance rates, not to mention the prolonged hassle of handling the fall-out. As too many of us know, drivers who have been involved in collisions often have to deal with claims, repairs, insurance representatives, police officers, and even lawyers. Particularly unlucky victims suffer serious physical injuries.
Culprits behind staged auto accidents attempt to engineer their way into collisions with unsuspecting drivers, but in a way that makes the innocent party appear to be at fault. With even a small dent, the trickster has enough to bring a fraudulent claim against an insurance company. To make matters worse, the scammer will often have passengers who also fake or embellish injuries so that they, too, can collect insurance money.
Techniques to Stage Accidents
The typical techniques to stage an accident include
- swooping in front of another driver and jamming on the breaks
- waiving forward a victim who is waiting to merge into a traffic lane, then speeding up
- gesturing to a driver in a parking lot that it’s safe to back up, then speeding up to get in that driver’s path
- ramming a driver who, while making a left turn, has ever-so-slightly drifted into the adjacent lane of traffic, and
- waiting for a driver to proceed through an intersection, then accelerating to collide with the side of the vehicle.
Many times the culprit will arrange for “witnesses” to observe the collision, then lie about who was at fault.
Scam artists have even devised ways to profit from accidents when they are legally at fault. Of course, these methods also work for collisions that appear to be the innocent driver’s responsibility.
After an accident, the deceitful driver—or even a nearby “witness”—may provide the victim with contact information for the owner of a repair shop, an alleged medical professional, or a lawyer. Each of these people will be in on the scam: The body shop owner will price gauge the victim, the medical provider will charge for bogus treatment, and the lawyer will insist on filing a lawsuit with the hope of collecting insurance money. The conspirators then split the proceeds behind closed doors.
Avoiding Staged Accident Scams
Although it’s nearly impossible to avoid many staged collisions, victims can protect themselves from the ensuing scams. Drivers with cameras, or cell phones that function as such, should take as many photographs as possible—of the vehicles, the damage, the other driver’s license plate, and even the other driver and any passengers. The innocent driver should also take copious notes, transcribing important information about the other driver, such as the driver's:
- name, address, and phone number
- registration and insurance information
- driver license number, and
- physical appearance.
Innocent drivers should never settle with cash. They should report all details of the accident to the police and their insurance company. If they suspect fraud, they might consider contacting the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
Punishment for Fraudsters
Perpetrators of staged car collisions and related insurance schemes are usually prosecuted under fraud statutes. Depending in part on the scope of the enterprise, the crime will be prosecuted as a state crime and brought by the county district attorney’s office; or prosecuted as a federal offense, handled by the United States government.
State laws proscribe fraud in general and specifically prohibit people from presenting false insurance claims. These crimes may be treated either as misdemeanors or felonies and can carry both imprisonment and stiff financial penalties.
The federal government may prosecute phony auto accident schemes under a variety of laws, notably the mail and wire fraud statutes. For example, in 2012 a leader of a prominent accident staging ring in Florida was sentenced to four years in prison and ordered to repay $4.4 million in illegal profits. The scheme involved staged accidents and spurious chiropractic claims. Other members of the operation also received prison sentences and hefty restitution orders.