JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The state called the worst in the nation for car insurance fraud has just arrested 19 people suspected in a fraud scheme based in Jacksonville.
The State Attorney's Office and Florida's Division of Insurance Fraud began investigating in July when an insurance carrier alerted investigators to possible fraudulent activity. The joint investigation centered on people staging automobile accidents for the purpose of filing fraudulent insurance claims.
"This is the old, 'Oh, I hurt my neck,' and there's no injury whatsoever," said insurance fraud Detective Dwight Murphy said on Friday.
In the last month, investigators shut down the Indian Rehabilitation Center Inc. at 3636 University Blvd. and arrested its owner, Valerie Marshall, a licensed massage therapist from Tampa.
Marshall, 24, is accused of opening the Jacksonville massage therapy clinic in September 2011 to provide "treatments" to people involved in the staged automobile accidents. Investigators determined that Marshall acted as a straw owner for other individuals actually overseeing the day-to-day operations.
According to the state attorney's office, recruiters offered to pay accident participants to stage car accidents, fake injuries and then sign paperwork claiming they received "treatment" at the IRCI clinic, which never occurred. The clinic then billed the participants' insurance carriers for Personal Injury Protection coverage.
Under Florida's "No Fault" insurance law, insurers must provide PIP coverage of $10,000 per person.
"This kind of fraud was really prevalent in South Florida, then went to Tampa, then seemed to carry over here.. in the last year or so," said Assistant State Attorney Joe Licandro.
Between March and October of last year, at least 19 claims were reported to the National Insurance Crime Bureau from 11 insurance carriers: Geico, Sentry, Direct, Peachtree, Allstate, Mendota, Ocean Harbor, MGA, USAA, State Farm and Farmers insurance.
Investigators found that the clinic "treated" about 80 patients during this time. More than $228,000 was paid to the clinic from the insurance providers. The figure does not include bodily injury amounts.
At this time, 17 people have been arrested for their involvement as accident participants, accident facilitators, clinic billing personnel and clinic managers. Those arrested are the following:
- Valerie Marshall -- clinic owner
- Yokayra Ramos -- receptionist/biller/accident participant
- Roscoe Sawyer Jr. --recruiter
- Edgard Fernandez-Romans -- recruiter
- David Arteaga Torres -- recruiter
- Kenneth Carrerro -- recruiter
- Jonathan Robinson -- accident participant
- Calvin Grier -- accident participant
- Tara Buck -- accident participant
- Niko Semedo -- accident participant
- Tawaub Zahir -- accident participant
- Samantha Daniel -- accident participant
- Kathy Adams -- accident participant
- Yilan Espinosa -- accident participant
- Connor Certo -- accident participant
- Lester Lopez -- accident participant
- Julio Figueroa -- accident participant
- Craig Graves -- accident participant
- Ernando Valentin -- accident participant
There are six outstanding warrants for others involved in the scheme. Marshall is charged with schemes to defraud, false insurance claims over $100,000, and illegal operation of a health care clinic. She faces up to 35 years in prison.
As for the other 18 people arrested in the case, their charges range from committing a staged motor vehicle accident to false insurance claims and schemes to defraud. If convicted, each defendant could face at least 15 years in prison.
"These large-scale accident clinics are at the root of the PIP fraud problem in Florida," Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater said in a release. "We must stay one step ahead of the ring leaders who are orchestrating these schemes. We will continue to take out these PIP fraud rings so that Florida drivers are protected and safe on the roads."