EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

Merrimack Valley

September 4, 2013

An Accident Waiting to Happen: Fatal crash 10 years ago keeps saving millions for drivers

How the death of Altagracia Arias in staged crash helped crackdown on auto insurance fraud

LAWRENCE — The racket of fake accidents and getting away with them had become routine in the city on Sept. 4, 2003, when Altagracia Arias got in the backseat of a 1992 Acura Legend with hopes of making some money in a staged crash with another car.

There wasn’t much chance of getting arrested or hurt and it was quick, easy money, or so she thought as she was trying to sell seats for $200 apiece to friends at the Lawrence Senior Center just hours before that night’s crash at the intersection of Ferry and East Haverill streets.

Passengers filing phony injury claims with insurance companies could earn several thousand dollars for their participation in staged accidents. So, the 65-year-old great-grandmother was a willing participant in a scheme to scam insurance companies that had become a multi-million-dollar-a-year cottage industry in the city.

But Arias never lived to collect the $1,000 or more she would have made off a bogus insurance claim. She suffered a fatal brain injury when the accident didn’t go as planned. The “bullet” car she was riding in kept going through the intersection and crashed into a wooden utility pole after colliding with the target car. Arias’ head snapped forward violently, causing her brain to hemorrhage.

While Arias died committing fraud, her death was the catalyst for the state’s biggest crackdown on auto insurance fraud. Among the major results:

The auto insurance fraud task force assembled by Lawrence Police Chief John Romero in partnership with the Insurance Fraud Bureau of Massachusetts within weeks of the fatal staged car crash was so successful it became a model for nine additional task forces called Community Insurance Fraud Initiatives (CIFI) in a dozen other communities.

The practice of lawyers or health care professionals hiring “runners” to recruit accident victims involved in phony crashes has been outlawed.

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