Cuban Crime Rings behind Florida Staged Accident Fraud

Originally intended to provide refuge to those fleeing Cuba’s Castro regime, the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 has enabled a thriving Cuban criminal network to expand from South Florida throughout the country and take hold without legal recourse. A recent three-part series by the Sun Sentinel, which examines the prevalence of this illegal activity, reveals that the cost to American businesses and taxpayers exceeds $2 billion over the past 20 years.

The story found Cuban criminals often work in rings that specialize in non-violent economic crimes such as credit card fraud, cargo theft, Medicare fraud, and insurance fraud through staged auto accidents. Frequently, they make their money, move it to Cuba, and return to the U.S. when more money needs to be made.

One massive auto insurance fraud ring with more than 100 participants—most of whom were Cuban—exemplifies just how easy it is for these groups to pull off the crime and get away with it because of their special immigration status.

In this particular case, 21 clinics in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties were involved in $18 million worth of fraud. Recruits found participants to smash cars with sledgehammers and stage vehicle accidents. Participants were then sent to the identified clinics that billed injury claims to auto insurance companies for treatment of their fake maladies.

It was discovered that the accused ringleaders were Cuban immigrants who were returning to Cuba on a weekly basis. Millions of dollars stayed in Cuba, apparently used to purchase properties and support family there, as IRS agent Pamela Martin testified at a court hearing last year.

After the FBI started to bust the fraud ring and make arrests, five main organizers fled back to Cuba, evading capture.

According to Fred Burkhardt, who is a South Florida auto-insurance industry fraud investigator from the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), the small-scale outfits of a decade ago have evolved and become very sophisticated and organized.

“Someone is sitting back with a strategy, figuring out where the clinics will be, where the patients will come from,” he said. “There’s a structure involved. There are specific duties that people have.”

Staging auto accidents to defraud insurance companies basically started in Miami in the late 1990s, the Sun Sentinel reported. By 2007, the crime has progressed to other Florida cities like Fort Myers, Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville, Burkhardt said.

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Filed under Insurance Fraud

Dunedin Man Arrested for Fabricating Vehicle Thefts and Defrauding Insurance Company

A 26-year-old Dunedin man was arrested by Pinellas County Sheriff’s Detectives on January 14 for auto insurance fraud.

Joseph Harris allegedly lied about three incidents of vehicle theft, and then falsely reported the burglaries to his insurance company to collect money.  Harris reported that the thefts took place at his home on February 28, 2014, June 12, 2014, and September 30, 2014.

According to a recent news story on TBN Weekly.com, Harris claimed that parts were stolen off his truck, which was parked in his driveway.   However, during a January 14 interview with detectives, the suspect supposedly admitted that he took the parts and buried them in his back yard in order to report them stolen.

Harris said he lied about the thefts because he needed the money.  He was able to collect over $10,000 from his insurance company as a result of his fraudulent activity.

Detectives charged Harris with two counts of false report of a crime, and two counts of defrauding an insurance company.  He was booked into county jail, and released on $4,300 bond on January 15.

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Filed under Insurance Fraud

11th Circuit Appellate Division Rules Insurer’s Adjuster Notes not Discoverable

On January 5, 2015, the Appellate Division of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit in and for Miami-Dade County issued a ruling reversing the lower court’s order compelling production of the insurer’s pre-litigation documents.  The court held that such documents are not discoverable in a first-party coverage lawsuit between the insured and the insurer.

In 2011, respondent Yesenia Romero sued State Farm for PIP benefits, alleging State Farm breached the insurance contract and violated the Florida PIP statute in not paying for claims resulting from a 2009 motor vehicle accident. Romero filed a request for State Farm’s “entire claims file concerning the case,” including all of the adjuster’s notes made prior to the pre-suit demand letter.  State Farm objected to the production, asserting work-product privilege.

A hearing on the issue was held in the trial court.  Following an in camera inspection of the adjuster’s notes, the judge determined that they were not protected under the work-product doctrine because they were not prepared in anticipation of litigation.  The court ordered State Farm to produce all the adjuster’s notes.  State Farm sought to have the appellate division quash the order.

In its analysis, the appellate division noted that all three levels of Florida’s judiciary, including its own court, have said that an insurance company’s claims file documents are not discoverable in a first-party coverage and damages lawsuit between an insurer and the insured. The court cited a Third District case, Castle Key v. Benitez, in concluding that “where the insured is not seeking a bad faith claim, but rather seeks relief for breach of contract,” the insurer’s claims file documents are not discoverable.

In this case, where the plaintiff was alleging breach of contract and not bad faith, the appellate division determined that the trial court erred in ordering State Farm to produce the documents and therefore quashed the trials court’s order.

State Farm v. Yesenia Romero, Case No. 13-48 AP (Fla. 11th Circuit January 5, 2015).

Castle Key Ins. Co. v. Benitez, 124 So. 3d 379 (Fla. 3d DCA 2013).

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Filed under Case Law, Fla. Stat. 627.736 (2012)

Appellate Court Rules that Two Providers Not “Prevailing Insureds”

A trial court ruling awarding attorney’s fees to two medical treatment providers was reversed by the Appellate Division of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit in and for Miami-Dade County in an opinion filed January 9, 2015. The court concluded that the providers did not constitute “prevailing insureds” and therefore were not entitled to the statutory award of attorney’s fees.

Fritznel Leconte was allegedly injured in an automobile accident on July 22, 2006, while insured by a PIP insurance policy issued by United Automobile Insurance Co. He received treatment from two providers—A Rehab Associates and Med Plus Centers—and assigned his PIP claims to them. The cases were tried separately and consolidated on appeal.

In response to a pre-suit statutory Demand Letter, United determined it was responsible only for the cost of the pre-IME (Independent Medical Exam) treatments and offered A Rehab $595.20 and Med Plus $1,324.80. At trial, verdicts were returned in favor of the providers for the exact amounts offered earlier by United.

The providers filed motions for attorney’s fees as “prevailing insureds” pursuant to Florida Statutes section 627.428. That statute grants an insured the right to recover attorney’s fees when the insured obtains a judgment or decree against the insurer, i.e., is a “prevailing insured.” The question before the court was whether an insured is a “prevailing insured” when it obtains a judgment no better than the amount offered by the insurer pre-suit.

The court held that the “prevailing insured” referred to in the statute is “one who has obtained a judgment greater than any offer of settlement tendered by the insurer.” Put another way, “insureds who rejects settlement offers that would make them whole cannot seek attorney’s fees under section 627.428.”

In this case, the judgments received were not greater than the amount offered by the insurer prior to the suit, so the insureds do not qualify as “prevailing insureds” and are not entitled to attorney’s fees pursuant to section 627.428.

United Automobile Ins. Co. v. A Rehab Assoc. and United Automobile Ins. Co. v. Med Plus Centers, Case Nos. 12-413 AP, 13-148 AP, 12-381 AP, 13-147 AP (Fla. 11th Cir. January 9, 2015).

Click on the link to access the court ruling.

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Filed under Case Law, Fla. Stat. 627.736 (2008)

Google May Be on the Verge of Selling Auto Insurance in the U.S.

There has been much speculation of late surrounding Google and whether the online giant will soon be entering the U.S. auto insurance market to sell policies online. The tech giant is expected to facilitate insurance sales from existing insurers, in a role similar to that of an insurance agent, rather than becoming an actual insurance company.

Google has been offering online auto insurance in the United Kingdom for the past two years via Google Compare (google.co.uk), which also enables users to comparison shop for credit card offers, travel insurance and mortgages, according to an Insurance Journal article on January 9.

The signs have certainly been pointing in that direction, the article said.

  1. A post in the New York Times technology blog ‘Bits’ reported that Google entered a partnership with CompareNow.com, a site which compares auto insurance quotes from fully licensed insurance providers. On-site users, who fill out one simple form, can then buy a policy online, by phone or through a local agent.
  2. Another indication recently came from Forrester Research analyst Ellen Carney who said in her blog that Google’s online auto insurance shopper—Google Compare Auto Insurance Services Inc.—has been licensed to sell insurance in at least 26 states with authorized carriers including Dairyland, MetLife, Mercury, Permanent General Assurance, Viking Insurance, and Workmen’s.
  3. Carney reported that Google may also be working with CoverHound, a site that provides online quotes for numerous insurance companies including Hartford, esurance, 21st Century, Travelers, Safeco, National General, Progressive, Foremost, Plymouth Rock, and more.

She also believes a launch could happen later this quarter, starting in California, and rolling out to Illinois, Pennsylvania and Texas, even though the pilot program has supposedly been delayed before.

Despite results from a survey by TransUnion last year that found online shopping for auto insurance rates declined about 3 percent in the 12 months ending February 2014 compared to a year earlier, industry analysts believe that Google could still make a dent in the market.

Global research by Accenture found that 67 percent of insurance customers said they would consider buying insurance products from organizations other than the insurers themselves.  In addition, 23 percent indicated that they would consider buying from online service providers such as Google and Amazon.

Google Inc. does own GoogleCompare.com; however, the site is not operational, according to Insurance Journal.  The publication also received no response from Google as expected. The tech company has previously told Reuters and the Wall Street Journal that it does not comment on speculation.

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Filed under Fla. Stat. 627.736 (2012)

Legislators Unlikely to Change Florida’s No-Fault Auto Insurance Law Right Now

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater wants Florida’s legislators to continue to be patient before considering any rash actions that would change personal injury protection (PIP) coverage in the state. That’s because a recent report released by the state Office of Insurance Regulation (OIR) shows that increases in fraudulent PIP claims have basically been stopped.

The Florida Department of Financial Services is attributing these results to the passage HB 119, effective January 1, 2013, which created some exclusions for coverage under PIP insurance and limited for non-emergency conditions. The amended No-Fault Law excluded PIP reimbursements to massage therapists and acupuncturists, and also required individuals involved in car crashes to seek treatment within 14 days of a motor vehicle accident. PIP allows up to $10,000 in benefits for emergency medical conditions, but places a $2,500 cap on non-emergency conditions. It is mandatory for all Florida drivers to carry PIP.

According to a story in the Sun-Sentinel on January 7, the law set benchmarks for insurance carriers to lower rates. The OIR report showed that from 2011 through September 2014, the average medical cost paid through PIP claims dropped 14 percent statewide.  In South Florida, a hotspot of fraudulent PIP activity, the average payment decreased 28.7 percent, the article reported.

However, it is thought that these numbers are too preliminary and do not show the full impact of the law, yet.

House Insurance & Banking Chairman John Wood, R-Winter Haven, noted in the article that he would be “surprised if there was ‘major’ PIP legislation before the issue is settled in court.”

Senate Banking and Insurance Chairwoman Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, said that she is still reviewing the OIR report, and likes to ensure that if changes are made, they have “a very positive effect on policyholders and our constituents.”

The annual legislative session begins in March.

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Filed under Fla. Stat. 627.736 (2012), Insurance Fraud

Staged Accident Organizer Arrested in Orlando

A 41-year old from Orlando, who was at the center of an alleged staged vehicle accident which occurred in 2013, was recently apprehended by the Florida Division of Insurance Fraud (DIF).

Jean Severe was arrested in November for organizing the fake crash.  According to DIF, participants were sent to Florida Chiro & Rehab Center for unnecessary medical treatment of their bogus injuries.  The scheme resulted in more than $6,000 in false claims filed with insurers Allstate and GEICO.

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Filed under Insurance Fraud