California DA Charges 53 Body Shop Employees with Insurance Fraud in Sting Operation - BodyShop Business

California DA Charges 53 Body Shop Employees with Insurance Fraud in Sting Operation

The Orange County, Calif., District Attorney’s Office (OCDA) has charged 53 defendants in Operation Straight Body following a five-month undercover sting by the OCDA Automobile Insurance Fraud Unit targeting auto body repair facilities engaging in insurance fraud.

Between January and May 2010, the OCDA conducted 152 undercover operations throughout Orange County. The targets for this operation were identified through the Bureau of Automotive Repair (BAR), which provided the OCDA with a list of 141 auto body repair facilities that have had consumer complaints within the past three years. The additional targets were identified through referrals by the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) and independent auto repair facilities that were not registered with the BAR.

Investigators arrested the defendants on felony insurance fraud charges on June 2 and 3. The defendants each have been charged with one felony count of insurance fraud and face maximum sentences of five years in state prison if convicted.

The in-custody defendants who have not posted the $30,000 bail were arraigned last week.

Operation Straight Body was conducted as follows:

Ford Expedition Cases

The OCDA obtained a 2001 Ford Expedition that had been totaled by an insurance company after sustaining rear-end damage in a collision. The rear bumper was completely missing and the rear frame rails were bent. After the primary collision, the Ford was backed into a telephone pole, causing an indentation in the rear hatch.

An undercover OCDA investigator went to auto body repair facilities with the Ford and asked for an estimate to repair the damage. The undercover investigator explained that he had purchased the vehicle without a bumper. Upon inspection, the estimators would inform the undercover investigator that the vehicle also had frame damage.

The investigator would ask if both the bumper and frame damage could be repaired under the same insurance claim, even though the bumper was missing at the time of purchase. The defendants charged with insurance fraud are accused of agreeing to include the damages under the same insurance estimate.

The majority of the estimators complied with the law and stated that the damages would require separate insurance claims and refused to file a claim, advising the undercover investigator that such an action would be insurance fraud.

Mercedes-Benz Cases

The OCDA obtained a 1999 Mercedes-Benz E430 that had been totaled by an insurance company after sustaining rear-end damage in a collision. The left side bumper wasn’t attached and was hanging slightly from the vehicle. The Mercedes also had a large dent in the front fender on the passenger side.

An undercover OCDA investigator went to auto body repair facilities with the Mercedes and asked for an estimate to repair the damage. In some cases, the undercover investigator explained that the rear-end damage had been caused in a collision and asked if the front fender damage, which was unrelated to the collision, could be repaired at the same time under the same insurance estimate. The defendants charged with insurance fraud are accused of agreeing to include both the front and rear damage on the same insurance estimate or increase the estimate from the rear-end collision to cover the extra cost of repairing the front fender.

The majority of the estimators complied with the law and stated that the damages would require separate insurance claims.

In other cases, the undercover investigator explained that he had purchased the Mercedes at an auction with pre-existing front- and rear-end damage. The undercover investigator asked to repair the pre-existing damage by filing a claim under a new insurance policy taken out after the purchase of the vehicle. Insurance claims cannot be filed under new insurance policies for damage sustained to a vehicle prior to the issuance of the policy.

The investigator asked for an estimate to have all damage repaired to submit to his insurance company, and most estimators refused, advising that filing such a claim is insurance fraud. The defendants charged with insurance fraud are accused of agreeing to provide an estimate with the knowledge that the estimate would be used to commit insurance fraud.

The BAR, California Highway Patrol, Department of Insurance, NICB, Automobile Club of Southern California, GEICO Insurance, Hartford Insurance, Infinity Insurance, Mendota Insurance, Mercury Insurance and Progressive Insurance Companies all assisted with the investigation, the OCDA said.

“Insurance fraud hurts every Orange County family because insurance companies pass on the cost of fraud to their customers. In a down economy, having affordable insurance is vital to families on a budget,” said Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. “In Southern California, having cars and car insurance are not a luxury, but a necessity. I think consumers have the right to know which of the auto repair shops are conducting straight businesses and which are not.”

This and other automobile insurance fraud investigations by the OCDA are ongoing. Deputy District Attorneys Jan Christie, Jimmie Harris and Demetra Lewis of the Insurance Fraud Unit are prosecuting these cases.

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