California police arrested 18 suspects in an alleged auto insurance scam ring that operated 2012-2015, stealing more than $200,000 through false claims.
Police allege that two San Martin brothers, Angel and Joshua Topete, served as the ringleaders to the organization, which was mostly composed of relatives and friends, according to Mercury News. Police allege that the crime ring faked 18 car crashes in order to bill six different insurance companies for repairs that were not made.
Investigators said the suspects would purchase cheap, salvaged cars, obtain insurance policies for the cars and then intentionally damage them, according to Morgan Hill Times.
Suspects would submit claims from one of two body shops, Espinosa Body Shop and Auto Parts USA, to their car insurance company and collect money, but the cars would either not be repaired or only receive minor repairs. Some accidents never occurred at all, police claimed.
A Farmer’s Insurance investigator who reported the scam said suspicions were raised when one suspect filed a claim on the same car from the same body shop as his father had filed a claim for months beforehand.
The California Department of Insurance and Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office said the suspects would sometimes stage crashes together, with both drivers involved in the scam.
At least one suspect, Gerardo Ivan Espinosa Martinez, is currently being prosecuted for another auto insurance scam charge.
Police began investigating the Topete family in 2015, according to Mercury News.
Deputy District Attorney Charlotte Chang said the case was difficult to solve because family members would be unwilling to turn each other in and they needed the help of attorneys specializing in automobile insurance. She added that false claims harm all insurance owners because the losses are passed along.
Chang said the ring continued on for so long because participants got “greedy.”
“You do it once and you don’t get caught. You do it four to six times and eventually someone will catch on,” she said, according to Morgan Hill Times.
Four suspects are still wanted, according to police. If convicted of insurance fraud, suspects involved in the case could be required to pay restitution to the insurance company and serve up to five years in prison.
Auto insurance scams are not uncommon – some 10 percent of auto claims filed with insurance companies are fake, according to Edmunds, and the National Insurance Crime Bureau estimates that the average insurance owner pays an extra $200-300 to cover those scams.