Calif. Authorities Put Sting Into Auto Body Shop Scam; 38 Individuals Arrested, More Than 30 Shops Tagged

September 16, 2004

California authorities have completed arresting 38 people for alleged auto insurance fraud at more than 30 auto body shops in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. The suspects were arrested over the past five days and booked into their respective county jails on one felony count each of automobile insurance fraud.

The arrests, listed further below, are the result of a five-month undercover investigation codenamed Operation Cash Out, which was conducted by the California Department of Insurance’s Fraud Division, the California Highway Patrol, and both the Riverside and San Bernardino District Attorney’s Offices. This collaboration constitutes the area’s Auto Insurance Fraud Task Force, created in 2000 by Assembly Bill 1050 (Wright).

The District Attorney’s Offices in each county are prosecuting their respective cases. If convicted, each suspect faces up to five years in state prison and a maximum fine of $50,000.

“Unfortunately, dishonest auto body shops were prevalent and plentiful in the region,” Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi commented. “Undercover fraud task force agents found that multiple auto body shops were ready and willing to support fraud.”

“This is another example of the cooperative effort among the Department of Insurance, the California Highway Patrol and the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office,” San Bernardino District Attorney Mike Ramos said. “We take insurance fraud very seriously in San Bernardino County because all of our residents wind up paying for abuses. It’s our goal to protect the citizens of San Bernardino County – not only from auto insurance fraud, but also from the type of insurance fraud that occurred after last year’s fires. We hope to continue our partnership with the Department of Insurance in these efforts.”

“This multi-agency operation sends a message to auto repair businesses and others to think twice before committing insurance fraud,” Riverside County District Attorney Grover Trask added. “You will be prosecuted. The high cost of this crime has been passed along to the insurance industry, businesses, and most importantly, the consumer for too long.”

Task force investigators visited a total of 66 auto body shops in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. Undercover investigators approached auto body shop estimators and told them about fraudulent claims they would be making to obtain new, complete paint jobs on their vehicles. The undercover investigators also made it very clear they would return to the body shops to get the car painted once the claim had been “cashed out” by the insurance company. The estimators arrested at 35 shops subsequently supplied undercover officers written estimates reportedly supporting the fraudulent claim.

Some suspects even reportedly coached the undercover officers as to how to make the damage worse on the vehicle so the insurance company would pay to have the whole car painted. In one case, the auto body shop owner refused to conduct business fraudulently but directed the investigator to another shop that would more likely provide an estimate for false claims.

Operation Cash Out, the first ever sting of auto body shops in the Inland Empire, was named after an insurance industry term for paying the insured directly, versus paying the repair facility and the insured, for repairs done to the vehicle once an estimate for repairs is secured.

Operation Cash Out also included investigators from the California Department of Industrial Relations, which has fined three shops to date for not having workers’ compensation insurance.

“These operators put their employees at great risk by not providing coverage for work-related injuries,” Garamendi added. “It also creates an unfair advantage over all those auto body shops who are playing by the rules and providing insurance for their workers.”

The successful conclusion of Operation Cash Out has already led the task force to explore other regional, undercover operations in various auto insurance areas.

Suspects Arrested (name, age, city of residence)

1. Zenia Amezquita, 19, Quail Valley
2. Octavio Amezquito, 21, Victorville
3. Juan Gomez Balderama, 34, San Bernardino
4. Jacob Barbour, 25, Moreno Valley
5. Ascencion Becerra, 57, Colton
6. Julieta Camacho, 32, San Bernardino
7. Bill Carroll, 40, Menifee
8. John Casarez, 23, Rialto
9. Mark Chesworth, 47, Rancho Mirage
10. Mike Davis, 43, Corona
11. Tina De Anda, 30, San Jacinto
12. Francisco Diaz, 22, Lake Elsinore
13. Mike Doman, 49, Hesperia
14. Terry Fowler, 38, Hesperia
15. Jairo Garcia, 19, Perris
16. Oscar Guerrero, 51, Fontana
17. Elkin Hernandez, 41, San Bernardino
18. Jesus Horta, 27, Victorville
19. Rick Lee, 50, Banning
20. Rafael Leon, 61, Ontario
21. Gabriel Lopez, 32, San Bernardino
22. John Mattson, 54, Palm Desert
23. Wayne McCarl, 57, San Bernardino
24. Mike McComas, 38, Hemet
25. Rutilo Becerra Navarro, 35, Fontana
26. Julio Oropeza, 33, San Bernardino
27. Javier Rafael, 39, Riverside
28. Javier Renteria, 50, Quail Valley
29. James Rios, 56, Cathedral City
30. Gustavo Rodriguez, 43, Murrieta
31. Dario Seniguar, 37, Murrieta
32. Georgia Shutes, 41, Lake Elsinore
33. Robert Skaug, 51, Hemet
34. Frank Vahedi, 50, Corona
35. Hiep Huy Vu, 27, Hesperia
36. Jeff Wilson, 39, Desert Hot Springs
37. Stephanie Wilson, 33, Desert Hot Springs
38. Nelson Yanes, 32, San Bernardino

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