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Mylipsa Santos, 23, San Diego, CA

You get a new car. You’re excited about it. You’re ready to drive it, too. But you need to be safe on the road as well.

Naturally, you have to get insurance to cover that first. What happens when your insurance agent scams you and leaves you hanging out to dry? No one thinks they’re going to be a victim of auto fraud.

However, it can happen to anyone who owns and operates an automobile. That’s when the California Department of Insurance steps in to do some snooping.

Investigators, the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office and the California Highway Patrol arrested four suspects Dec. 5 for alleged involvement in an elaborate organized auto fraud ring that had taken over $500,000 from various clientele that expected to get some pretty good insurance coverage.

I mean, for that amount of money, the insurance should be good. Unfortunately, some San Diego residents were left with a double whammy instead: sans-insurance and liable for any bills footed, thanks to these thieves. 

The crimes supposedly committed included dealers purchasing damaged vehicles and then filing inflated claims and staged thefts in order to make their pockets a little bit heavier, the Department of Insurance press release on the incident states.

Now their pockets are going to be fairly empty for quite some time.

A joint task force dubbed “Operation Dealer’s Choice” is responsible for capturing Michael Cusi, Jessica Herrera, Mylipsa Santos and Daniel Santos. Additional suspects include Luis Cardona Jr., Francisco Javier Rodriguez, Jesus Herrera, Betsy Guadalupe Matteoti, Ramon De Jesus Hernandez and Felipe Cardona Villareal. Suspect ages range from 23 to 56 years old.

Insurance carriers hit by the scheme are Nationwide, Stonewood, USAA, California Casualty, Allstate, State Farm, Liberty Mutual, Esurance, GEICO, Kemper, Wawanesa and AAA.

In short, the scheme was to sell damaged cars posed as in running condition. From there, claims were filed in order to siphon money from the insurance companies. Buyers would be paying for a bogus car and insurance companies would be paying to fix it.

Remember when scammers would roll back the odometer mileage in order to sell a beat down car for a much higher price? Well, that old idea was essentially brought back to life here.

The thieves also filed suspected “staged collisions” claims in which they would actually damage vehicles themselves to the point of a “total loss” to collect an insurance claim check for the damage.

Suspects also “staged thefts” in which they got paid for the theft of their vehicle after they, themselves, made the vehicle disappear. All in all, it sounds like a really bad Hollywood blockbuster. And a half of a million dollars was siphoned from consumers who were just trying to do the right thing by having adequate insurance coverage.

Investigators found at least 35 possible auto fraud insurance claims filed over a period of four years. 56 vehicles were used by the ring.

“Stealing from insurance companies hits all of us in the wallet because the loss is passed on to the consumer,” District Attorney Summer Stephan said. “These defendants carried on their criminal enterprise for years until the joint task force’s outstanding work stopped them in their tracks.”