In the dead of night and on rural roads, a crime syndicate staged car crash after car crash to dupe police and swindle insurance companies out of nearly $1 million, federal prosecutors said this week.
The criminal enterprise lasted more than three years in Washington state, where nearly two dozen people conspired to fake automobile accidents, fabricate injuries at hospitals and hire lawyers to negotiate top-dollar settlements to cover property damage, medical treatment and lost wages, according to a newly unsealed indictment in the U.S. District Court of Eastern Washington.
On Tuesday, federal prosecutors announced 23 people had been charged with dozens of crimes, including wire fraud, health care fraud, obstruction and making false statements to the FBI in connection with the scheme. Many of the defendants, who range in age from 20 to 56, live in Washington, but others hail from Canada, California, Nevada and Michigan. Federal law enforcement officers have not tracked down four of the people they believe were involved and now consider them fugitives.
“The Defendants falsely claimed that they were in an accident when, in truth and fact, [they] were involved in a pre-planned, deliberate staged collision carried out for the sole purpose of fraudulently claiming insurance losses,” federal prosecutors said in the indictment.
The staged automobile accidents started around July 4, 2017, and continued until September 2020, according to the indictment.
The suspects would often start the process of staging a crash by going to the Washington State Department of Licensing offices to transfer ownership of a vehicle to someone else who was in on the scheme, investigators said. Then, when there were no witnesses around, they would crash the “at fault” vehicle into the “victim” vehicle, according to court records.
Someone would then call 911 to report an “accident,” prosecutors said.
In two of the crashes, the suspects used hammers to smash the vehicles’ windows, the indictment said. At least once, investigators said, they put a case of bottled water in the front passenger seat to trigger the air bag during the crash. In at least three of the collisions, no one was even inside the so-called “victim” vehicles, although the suspects would later mislead police, medical staff and insurance companies to believe there were passengers inside, court records state.
On May 28, 2019, the suspects allegedly staged a crash so that two children were inside the vehicle that was intentionally hit. That wreck resulted in a $125,845 payout.
In general, the suspects who were supposedly inside the vehicles during the crashes went to emergency rooms for medical treatment, fabricating or exaggerating their injuries, the indictment said. To complete the ruse, they reported the fraudulent property damage and injuries to insurance companies and raked in the payouts, according to authorities.
In total, the suspects allegedly swindled insurance companies out of at least $962,347.
The FBI started investigating in February 2019. On May 28, 2020, federal agents executed search warrants on several of the suspects’ residences.
The suspects began to turn on each other, prosecutors said. One of the alleged leaders, Ali Abed Yaser, 51, apparently believed a member of the syndicate was working with the FBI. He allegedly told a confidant that he would have “finished off” the suspected informant if given the chance.
“They would not have recognized his face from his foot,” Yaser allegedly said.
An attorney for Yaser did not immediately respond to a message from The Washington Post early Thursday.
Others allegedly began threatening family members — even those in Iraq — if they talked to the FBI. One warned that people who carelessly talked about the staged crashes around others “would be hanging from poles,” according to the indictment.
They tried derailing the investigation in other ways, prosecutors said. After conspiring with others in the syndicate, Yaser allegedly went to the local police and told investigators that one of his co-conspirators — the one he suspected was working with the FBI — had pressured him to pay $22,000 to make his case go away. Yaser told police that the man had threatened him by saying Yaser would go to prison for two years if he did not pay.
Prosecutors said that was not true: “In truth and in fact, as Yaser well knew, the statements and representations were materially false, fictitious and fraudulent.”