Crash scams: Not all accidents are accidental

Mike Rutherford was the victim of LA con-men, who drove into him. And the scam is coming here, too
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Hugh Grant isn't the only Brit who's experienced an unfortunate run-in on Sunset Boulevard. I was living and working in LA when, one evening, driving along stone-cold sober, within the speed limit and carefully observing all the signs and vehicles around me, I was deliberately T-boned by another vehicle.

The stupidly naive mistake I made was to drive a shiny new car wearing an out-of-state plate. Plus, the vehicle looked like a renter. The perps who ran into me in their ageing but hard-as-Tyson Cadillac chose their victim well and assumed, correctly, that I had full-blown insurance cover.

The grille and bumper of their almost worthless black Cadi punched a massive dent in the front wing and door of my Dodge hire car. The damage was serious but not severe enough to kill or even hurt me or anyone else. These guys were pros. They knew exactly how far too push their luck.

The driver got out. So did his partner in crime. They were the sort of guys who pumped iron at the gym. Both were unapologetic and told me that they needed my details. When they realised that I was an out-of-towner they wanted to know where my temporary LA home was. I went along with them as much as I needed to, proved who I was by showing them my passport, gave them a mobile-phone number, but managed to hold back my UK and US addresses.

Thankfully, my all-singing, all-dancing insurance certificate, purchased when I hired the vehicle, more than covered the damage. And, bizarrely, the large bloke who caused the crash never bothered to contact me. I put the incident down to experience.

Months later I got a call from a smooth-talking Californian who introduced himself by saying: "Hey, Mr Rooootfd, how are YOU today? I'm your LA lawyer and I need to talk about the multi-million-dollar claim being made against you."

I laughed out loud, took down a few of his details, hung up and checked him out. He was for real. I rang him back. He thanked me for doing so and continued. "These assholes who drove into your automobile, Mr Rooootfd, could they walk afterwards? Only they're both complaining that they're now laid up with damaged backs and they're suggesting that they'll never be able to walk or work or do anything again. Ever."

After explaining that I definitely saw them walking, bending over to inspect the damage to my car and climbing back in and driving off in their Cadillac, the lawyer cut me short, told me not to worry about a thing and assured me that I should consider the matter closed. The guys in the Cadillac were known to him as serial baulkers (as in baulking insurance companies), and they earned a living - sort of - by ploughing their battering-ram Cadi into the soft areas of cars being used by wholly legal drivers such as me.

They wouldn't be getting the millions of dollars they were claiming, the lawyer assured me. But, through gritted teeth, he told me that in order to avoid expensive court proceedings, they might be given $500 to shut up and go away.

Illegal baulking is such a big industry in the States that some of the offenders are funded and encouraged by wealthy criminal bosses and unscrupulous legal professionals to go out in old bangers and deliberately create "accidents". Now, criminals in the UK are using copycat tactics to manufacture shunts and fake injuries of their own.

The Association of British Insurers refers to them as SMAs - staged motor accidents - and says that the organisation was first made aware of the scam operating in small pockets of the UK seven or eight years ago.

There's almost no limit to what these specialist offenders will get up to, says the ABI. Sometimes the claim will be that a driver and all his passengers have whiplash, which are difficult to prove or disprove. The fraudsters invent witnesses and certificate-writing doctors. Occasionally they even buy up cars that have been written off or are about to be scrapped, ensure that they're involved in a prang, and then try to force insurance companies to pay for the vehicles to be brought back to as-new condition.

Other scams include "bump and rob" prangs, whereby a car is deliberately tapped, fairly gently. When the innocent driver jumps out to inspect the damage, thieves take items from the vehicle - or the vehicle itself. Their first stop is often the victim's home, thanks to the fact that the latter's house keys and address are usually still in the car as well as his or her ignition key.

Or sometimes the thieves pretend to be ill or injuredon a deserted road, tempting good citizens to stop and help them - at which point accomplices step out from behind trees and bushes.

Alternatively, someone could step in front of your car with the apparent intention of getting run over. It happened in December in Whitchurch, Bristol, when a 31-year-old woman driver knocked down a pedestrian. When she got out to check how he was, he knocked her down and drove off in her Astra. That's commitment for you.

Other villains don't bother taking such risks. They merely turn up in a town, jot down a vehicle's registration number and falsely claim that it was involved in a hit and run accident with them earlier in the day. The owner or user of the motor then has to prove that he or she has been the victim of an outrageous and false accusation. And that's easier said than done.

The advice from the ABI is that if you're involved in any sort of accident - deliberate or otherwise - and you suspect that you're an innocent victim, admit nothing, and keep a camera in your glove box to take pictures of the scene, if it's safe to do so. Seek out credible witnesses whose evidence could prove invaluable. And rest assured that while the American system may allow felons to be palmed off with a few hundred, undeserved, dollars because it's the quickest and most cost-effective way of dealing with the bad guys, the ABI insists that things are done very differently here because insurers encourage proper investigation into, and prosecution of, suspected ringleaders, drivers and their accomplices.

My personal advice is this: even it means a longer journey, stay away from areas that are known to be, or just feel, dodgy. Unless you're on a motorway, keep all your doors and your boot locked. If you're unlucky enough to be an accident victim and you smell a rat, consider staying in your car if you're safely parked and double-checking that your doors are still locked (prangs can sometimes disable central locking systems). A fully charged mobile is an absolute must, and don't be afraid to call 999.

And never forget that the criminal who allegedly sustains injuries to himself might, at the same time, be inflicting real physical injuries on his prey. His victims might, therefore, be in a perfect position to turn the tables and counter-sue. It really would be remiss of them if they didn't.

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