Most of us have probably experienced an auto accident at one point or another. Might have been a fender bender, maybe something more serious, or perhaps you just backed into a pole. But have you ever considered that someone might do this on purpose? The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB, and chock full of interesting information) reports that Staged Accident Fraud is becoming a bigger and bigger problem. So what are these staged accidents? And what can you do to prevent being a victim? Read on...
Swoop and Squat:
This may be one of the more common scams. Depending on the size of the road, there are three or four cars involved in the plan. The "squat" vehicle positions himself right in front of the victims car, driving normally. Then, the "swoop" car comes in and cuts off the "squat". The "squat" brakes suddenly, causing the victim to rear end him, while the "swoop" car takes off. Since the driver of the "swoop" car can't be found, the victim must pay for damages and personal injury claims to the passengers in the "squat" car. On a freeway or multilane highway, a fourth car may block the victim's car so that when the "squat" car brakes, the victim can't change lanes to avoid the collision. This scheme essentially forces the victim's car to rear end the "squat" car.
You know those intersections where there are two left turn lanes? And how easy it is to drift from the outside turn lane to the inside turn lane? So do scammers. As soon as the victim's car slips outside of it's lane on the curve of a left turn, the criminal side swipes the car, causing physical damage. Usually, the scam artists will watch an intersection to see if people do drift, how much traffic there is and what kinds of cars people at the intersection often drive to see if it's a worthwhile scheme.
We warn people about the dangers of distracted driving...and this is one of them. The criminal loads a vehicle full of passengers, and one in the backseat is watching the victim. As soon as the victim is not paying attention - changing the radio, taking a phone call, spilling coffee - the criminal's car brakes hard and fast. Because the victim wasn't paying attention, they rear-end the criminal's car. Sometimes the criminals will intentionally damage their brake lights so that there really isn't a way to tell when they are stopping. Unfortunately, "they stopped for no reason" doesn't make the accident the fault of the criminal, and the victim's insurance must kick in for injuries and damage.
Merging is a tricky sport, and the fraudsters are well aware that they can take advantage here. The scammer will often position his or her car on a freeway ramp or where lanes are reduced or closed. When the victim appears, they are waved on to go, the criminal pulls out, and there is a collision. Because the victim is unlikely to have the right of way, and the criminal can claim he or she wasn't waving, the victim's insurance can kick in. Another variation of this is when people go to make a left turn into a strip mall or business along a busy road. The victim anticipates that they have enough time to make it in the lot, but "out of nowhere" a pedestrian, or another car, comes along to block the way...sticking the victim half in the lot and half in the road. The criminal, of course, hits the victim and because cars making lefts against traffic are generally liable, the criminal can still collect the insurance payments.
So What Can You Do?
- Avoid tailgating. Most of these schemes involve following too closely...so don't!
- Try to keep your eye on the road - not only will you avoid being taken advantage of because you're not paying attention, you may even spot suspicious cars positioning themselves around you.
- In an accident, document everything. File a police report, take photos of all of the damage. Pictures are worth a thousand words, and even a thousand dollars in this case, when you can prove the damage is much smaller than what a scammer would report to the insurance company.
- Don't work off of the recommendations of people who appear at the accident scene out of nowhere. These people will often try to get you to use certain doctors, or lawyers, tow companies or body shops. And what do you know? All of those people are part of the plan. Paid extras on a movie set, if you will. And if a tow truck magically appears without having been called...steer clear.
While not all accidents are scams, and not all bad drivers are criminals, staged accidents and fraud are becoming bigger issues. They cost millions of dollars each year, and when you participate unknowingly in a fraud scheme you can face a range of consequences from increases in insurance or injuries. But, as they say, knowledge is power, and this gives us all something to think about out on the roads.