How to recognize the signs of a staged accident

Adam Kosloff
Did something seem a little off about your recent auto accident? Maybe a fellow motorist waved you through at an intersection and then crashed into you anyway. Maybe the passengers in that car claimed to have serious injuries, even though your cars were going only 10 miles per hour when they crashed. These could be signs of a staged accident.

Staged accidents are a form of insurance fraud that costs consumers and insurers billions of dollars annually, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Criminals deliberately cause crashes, pretend to be seriously hurt, claim that their cars have sustained major damage, and then work with dishonest body shops and doctors to rake in insurance payouts. They even may convince you to see a certain doctor who will bilk your insurance company by exaggerating the care you need.
Fortunately, staged accidents involving innocent drivers are rare. Usually, all of the "victims" in staged accidents are part of fraud rings. But staged crashes involving unsuspecting drivers do happen. Here are some signs to look out for.
Easy targets
 Criminals often target certain groups when selecting victims for their schemes. Some common victims are:

  • Women and senior citizens. They're thought to be less confrontational than other motorists.
  • Those who live in urban areas with a lot of cars (and where traffic accidents are more common).
  • Residents of wealthier communities, as they're likely to have better insurance coverage. Better insurance coverage means that the fraudsters can milk it for more money.
  • People who drive commercial vehicles, rental cars and new cars because these drivers are more likely to have good auto insurance coverage.

Staged accident scenarios
Although you may not be able to prevent criminals from taking advantage of you, the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud points out a few tactics that can help you recognize a staged accident for what it is -- and inform your insurance company in time.

  • Sideswipe: If you are in the inner lane of a dual left-turn lane, crooks may deliberately try to ram your car if you drift into the outer lane while making your turn.
  • Sudden swoop-and-squat: A criminal suddenly will dart in front of your vehicle and slam on the brakes, prompting a rear-end collision. The criminal -- and cohorts in his car -- may claim neck and whiplash injuries, even if the crash happened at a low speed.
  • Fake wave: A dishonest driver may wave you forward into an intersection or out of a parking space -- indicating that it's your turn to go -- and then suddenly crash into you on purpose. Later, when the police arrive, the driver may deny that he or she ever waved you forward.

 Warning signs
After the accident, be on the lookout for these red flags:

  • Shifty help: Following an accident, "help" magically may appear. For instance, a tow truck driver may arrive without you (or your insurer) calling for one. A "physician" may show up on scene, suggesting care that you should get from his practice. An attorney may offer help in filing insurance claims. These people might be "runners" for a fraud ring.
  • Passengers putting on an act: Be suspicious if the car you hit is filled with passengers who act unhurt -- and then suddenly act like they're in pain when the police arrive.

How to protect yourself
If you think that something isn't quite right about the accident, let the police officer who files the accident report know. Make sure the report includes a detailed description of the damage so that it's harder for scam artists to exaggerate it later.
Be sure to document the accident scene. Take photos. Get the names and contact information of the driver and all passengers, and count how many there are. This makes it harder for fraudsters to add victims later.

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