IT PAYS TO KNOW: The Swoop & Squat

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Judd for webBy JUDD MATSUNAGA

Sometimes called “Crash for Cash,” scam artists are staging auto accidents to collect big money from insurance companies. In my opinion, they are blatant criminals who not only endanger the safety of their victims and innocent bystanders, but make my auto insurance premiums go up.

Of course, it’s nothing new. I was a victim of a staged accident some 35 years ago. Driving northbound on La Cienega Boulevard near Ladera Heights, an old station wagon cut in front of me and slammed on its brakes. I was still accelerating from the red light (this part of La Cienega is like a freeway), so I rear-ended the station wagon before I was able to stop.

I was furious! My shiny, brand new car had a big dent on the hood. The other driver got out of his car apologizing, “I’m sorry, it was my fault,” gesturing for me to calm down. Since we didn’t have cell phones back then, one of his two passengers ran to call the police. Reluctantly, I waited for the police to show up.

To my dismay, my auto insurance company calls the following week to take my statement. “That’s not what they are claiming,” she said. “According to the police report, you were at fault and all three of them are claiming injuries.”

“You’ve got to fight it,” I exclaimed. “They’re lying.”

However, as I have learned, the sad truth is — it’s not about truth (or justice), it’s about money. The insurance company figured it would be cheaper to settle the claim rather than to fight it in court. How could I possibly prove that another car didn’t cut in front of him, forcing him to slam on his brakes? After all, the other car had two witnesses; I had none.

It turns out I was a victim of the old “Swoop and Squat” trick. In this scenario, a “swoop” car suddenly speeds up and cuts off the “squat” car (the victim). Unable to stop in time, the “squat” car rear-ends the “swoop” car. The suspects in the squat vehicle will frequently indicate that an unknown vehicle “came out of nowhere” and stopped, forcing them to brake.

Usually, these criminals target a late-model vehicle occupied by a single victim (usually under 40 years of age), so the victim has no witnesses to the collision. Also, the “swoop” car usually has multiple suspects, all of whom are in on the scam and claim some sort of injury, making an auto insurance claim.

Believe it or not, many times the principal perpetrator of the accident will sell passenger spaces in the car for a set price or a percentage of the passenger’s insurance claim. In some cases, the passengers do not even ride in the car when the accident occurs. This is actually a common feature of staged accidents.

Another common staged accident is called the “Drive Down” or “Wave On.” In this scam, the criminal appears to yield his right of way and waves to the innocent victim to proceed with a merge or lane change. As the victim merges, the criminal drives into the innocent driver, and later denies that he or she had waved the victim on.

For example, you’re at Costco and ready to pull out of your prime parking spot. You notice a car behind you gesturing for you to proceed backward. Assuming he wants your parking spot, you proceed back. The criminal then purposely drives into you (staged collision), attempting to make it appear it is your fault.

In some auto insurance fraud schemes, no accident ever really happens. The criminal reports an accident and subsequent injury, and makes a claim; however, the accident only exists on paper. In some cases, police are called to the scene of an alleged “hit and run,” where only one car is present and damage has been fabricated.

In reviewing more than 13,000 questionable insurance claims for a report released in January 2013, analysts at the National Insurance Crime Bureau found that nearly 34% were defined as “staged/caused accidents” involving personal autos. These types of “accidents” are not really accidents at all.

Those in the car during the collision as well as the medical personnel who “treat” the injured parties are involved in elaborate schemes to collect money from car insurance companies.

This type of fraud does substantial damage, not just to the actual victims who must get their cars repaired and deal with potential injuries, but also to all those insured by raising car insurance rates overall.

Now, you might hear on the news that the economy is getting better, but I don’t believe it. I believe that the economy is spiraling downward and crime is spiraling upward. This will mean more staged accidents. If you know a young driver who drives nice, new car (and tends to text while driving), warn him or her that they are prime targets.

According to the Los Angeles Police Department website (www.lapdonline.org), vehicle collisions are on the increase. As these vehicle collisions increase in the County and City of Los Angeles, odds become greater that unsuspecting motorists and their passengers could become involved in a staged collision crime.

From the LAPD website, here are some tips on protecting yourself from becoming the victim of a staged collision:

• Be aware of other vehicles around you; always allow ample space between you and the vehicle in front of you.

• Be careful when turning from a lane that allows two vehicles to turn simultaneously. Criminals who commit staged collisions often prey on this situation and purposely sideswipe a targeted vehicle.

• Fully insured motorists, driving alone, are the favorite targets of criminals involved in staged collisions. Lone drivers are preferred, because passengers make good witnesses. Also, luxury and commercial vehicles are often targeted because of extensive insurance coverage.

• If you become involved in a traffic collision on a busy street or highway, remove your vehicle from traffic lanes, if possible. Advise the other motorists of your intentions, so they do not think you are attempting to flee the scene.

• Once you are safely removed from the roadway, exchange information with the other motorists involved. Try to obtain statements from potential independent witnesses, and write down their names, addresses and telephone numbers.

• Oftentimes, “phony witnesses” are positioned near the scene of the staged collision to support the involved criminal’s account and to contradict the innocent driver’s account of what actually happened. In some instances, criminals inflict injury upon themselves or claim “hard to dispute” soft-tissue injuries in order to collect on insurance claims.

• Carry a disposable camera in your vehicle. If you are involved in a traffic collision, whether you believe it was staged or not, take pictures of the damage to each vehicle, the license plate of the vehicles involved, and the driver and passengers.

• If you think you have been involved in a staged collision make sure to count the number of passengers in the other vehicle. If possible, get their individual names, addresses, telephone numbers and driver’s license numbers. Often more people will file claims than were in the vehicle when the collision occurred.

• If you suspect you are the victim of a staged collision, immediately report the incident to the local law enforcement agency.

Driving is a full-time job. You can reduce your chances of becoming a victim of a staged collision if you apply the aforementioned tips, adhere to the rules of the road, and always drive defensively. Additionally, do not drive when you are tired or stressed. Diminished concentration on the road can lead to carelessness, which will make you more vulnerable. Refrain from using a cell phone, map, or anything else that will distract you from the road while you are driving.

Judd Matsunaga, Esq., is the founding partner of the Law Offices of Matsunaga & Associates, specializing in estate/Medi-Cal planning, probate, personal injury and real estate law. With offices in Torrance, Hollywood, Sherman Oaks, Pasadena and Fountain Valley, he can be reached at (800) 411-0546. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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