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Collision scams seen as part of high-stakes game

Officials crack down on fraudulent claims

LAWRENCE -- Staged car collisions like the one that ended tragically two weeks ago when a Lawrence grandmother lost her life are anything but the low-dollar scams of the past, according to investigators and insurance fraud specialists.

Such crashes are now often the work of unscrupulous medical professionals who recruit the participants, pay them a small amount of money, and then submit fraudulent health care claims for thousands of dollars, investigators say.

"This woman and her grandsons were just pawns in a high-stakes game," said state Senator Susan C. Tucker, an Andover Democrat who has been pressing for three years for better enforcement of fraudulent personal injury claims.

Tucker said she has a bill pending in the Legislature that would make it illegal to recruit participants in staged crashes. The bill also includes language that would encourage whistle-blowers to report auto insurance fraud.

As part of its investigation into the Sept. 4 death of Altagracia Arias, 64, State Police seized patient files after raiding the Essex Street office of ProHealth Rehabilitation Center on Friday night, according to Essex District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett.

Blodgett said he could not comment specifically on what detectives believe they will find in the files from the chiropractors' office. He said state and local investigators have been working closely with Tucker and insurance industry specialists to understand how such scams work.

"We are looking into everybody and trying to gather as much information as possible," said Blodgett, who added that he expected more arrests to be made in the case.

Auto insurance specialists have told Blodgett that $80 million in false bodily injury claims are filed annually in Massachusetts, he said.

The Essex Street office of ProHealth was closed for the weekend yesterday. Messages left on the clinic's answering machine were not returned.

George McMahon, the Quincy lawyer who said he has been retained by ProHealth's owner, Alex Faigel, for several years to protect him against allegations of fraud, said his client has no knowledge of the collision that led to Arias's death and "is in no way connected to the allegation of impropriety." McMahon said three chiropractors work out of Faigel's Lawrence clinic. "Apparently at least one of the people involved in this accident was a patient of his in the past. That's all we know at this point."

On Friday, Hairo L. Gomez, 22, of Lawrence -- the driver of one of two cars involved in what police said was a prearranged, high-speed collision -- was arrested and arraigned on manslaughter charges after Arias died from injuries she suffered in the crash.

Police are searching for Arias's grandson, Jacinto Maldonado, 22, also of Lawrence, who was allegedly driving the second car in which Arias was riding, according to Police Chief John J. Romero.

Romero said the "staged crash" is a recent mutation of an older, more familiar, insurance scam and may have resulted from recent reforms that have made such scams harder to pull off.

"It used to be two guys would get together, damage their cars somehow, and then submit a fraudulent claim indicating their cars had crashed," said Romero. "Then we'd end up with more personal injury claims than seats in the car."

Under the Commonwealth's old accident reporting form, the number of passengers and their names did not have to be listed, Romero said.

"Now that the motor vehicle form includes a space to list every passenger, what we are seeing are these prearranged, predetermined crashes," Romero said. "This is a much more dangerous game for the participants because they are actually in the car at the time of the crash."

In some cases, he said, chiropractors pay runners bonuses of $250 to find friends to participate.

Romero said two manslaughter indictments came after investigators began receiving tips that Arias had been offering seats in her grandson's car for $200 just hours before the fatal collision.

Caroline Louise Cole can be reached at cole@globe.com

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