Specialist also sticks Medicare with $137M in bogus eye claims

Patients flocked to Dr. Salomon Melgen, looking for relief of serious eye conditions. The West Palm Beach, Fla. eye specialist returned their trust by thrusting needles painfully in their eyes and searing their retinas with lasers. It was a festival of worthless and botched procedures that left patients with damaged eyes.

For Melgen, the payoff was a $136-million filching of Medicare and taxpayers. He became a rich man replete with a luxury mansion until investigators, well, saw through his shortsighted eye ruses.

The Harvard-trained specialist was well-known and sought-after, especially for seniors with eye problems. Their misery became his path to insurance wealth.

Melgen treated up to 100 patients a day. He falsely diagnosed most with debilitating diseases, even when most had no disease. Macular degeneration was his most-common bogus diagnosis. It’s a retina disease that can permanently sap the vision of seniors 65 and older. The prospect of an incurable descent into blindness made patients take whatever treatment the expert in the white coat said they needed.

Painful eye injections

That often meant painfully injecting expensive medicines into their eyes, then billing Medicare. Melgen often had his staff fill out medical charts and diagnoses before he even saw patients. Medicare paid him for 37,075 injections in 2012 alone — more than 100 per day. Tests often were done in just seconds, making them worthless for diagnosing. Melgen’s average insurance haul was more than $23,000 per patient.

Some seniors had a plastic prosthetic eye, yet Melgen billed Medicare for testing and treating serious eye conditions. Other patients had eye conditions that were too far gone to benefit from treatments. Melgen still soaked Medicare with batteries of tests and treatments.

Anna Borgia had painful injections and laser treatments for supposed glaucoma and diabetes-related sight loss. Melgen then botched a surgery that left her nearly blind, she testified. She says she’s confined to her home, listening to the TV and paying drivers to take her to the grocery store.

Developed eye infections

Melgen convinced a 90-year-old woman to have laser treatments and injections. She later said she didn’t need the treatments — she had no eye disease. Patients developed eye infections from injections. Fully one of every 13 patients grew infected. That was “astronomically high,” an expert testified at his trial. Normally only about one in 3,300 patients are infected, experts said.

Randy Frick’s attorney read a letter saying Melgen convinced his 90-year-old mother to get laser treatments and injections. He later learned they were unneeded because his mother has no eye disease.

“She underwent systemic torture at the hands of Melgen,” wrote Frick, who drove his mother to the appointments. “I feel so guilty I have nightmares.”

Melgen played another billing trick on Medicare — give patients partial doses of medicines, bill Medicare for a full dose, then bill again for using the remaining meds in the vile. That turned a $2,000 vial into a $6,000- $8,000 insurance windfall.
Melgen was handed 17 years in federal prison in February 2018.

“I love dancing but what man wants to take a blind woman dancing?” Anna Borgia told the judge.

Surprise, uninsured medical bills drain patient bank accounts

A reporter strikes a nerve with a story that prompted hundreds of news outlets to re-post his saga of a Texas patient’s run-in with a large, uninsured bill for urine testing.

The phone rang. A reporter wanted to interview the Coalition about a problem that’s been vexing medical patients with growing frequency: surprise jack-in-the-box bills for urine drug testing that patients assume their health policy covers.

The investigative story by the respected Kaiser Health News posted a couple of weeks later. A fine reporting job that featured Elizabeth Moreno. The Texas woman was handed a whopping $17,850 lab bill for a routine urine drug test her health insurer refused to pay because the lab was out of her health plan’s network.

In the story, experts described the lab’s bill as “real fishy,” “outrageous” and a “misplaced decimal point.”

The story took off. CNN posted it. So did the Washington Post, NPR and Money Magazine. Soon an avalanche of news outlets re-posted it — more than 420 at last count.

Longtime reporter Fred Schulte had struck a journalistic and human nerve.

Stunned patients with growing frequency are stuck with ruinously large bills when they’re shuttled to medical providers outside their own health- insurance networks.

Their health policy thus won’t pay up, so the patients have to drain their bank accounts or face collections, suits and wrecked credit ratings.

Surprise out-of-network bills are bedeviling patients around the U.S. Moreno’s lab bill is just one signpost of a larger billing problem that can invade almost any medical procedure.

The bills often straddle a fine line from large to abusively large to criminally inflated.

News outlets everywhere wanted to report on a spreading abuse that could land hard on any of their readers’ doorsteps — and bank accounts. Fred Schulte gave them another chance to alert readers.

The Kaiser story isn’t the first, and likely many more news outlets will pull the lid off unexpected and onerous medical charges until reforms lay this problem to rest.

A bill in Congress would prevent surprise bills for patients treated in a hospital.

As for consumer action:

  • Check with your insurer, doctor and hospital before getting treatment if possible. Ask for projected range of costs for planned medical procedures;
  • Ask what provider and work your health plan will cover, and what’s out of network. Anesthesiologists, radiologists and pathologists are common examples of out-of-network providers who may be called into your case without your knowing.; and
  • Afterward, get an itemized bill. Read it carefully, and check for procedures you didn’t receive. Your insurer also may help if you see surprise bills, so contact your insurer before writing any checks. Also see if the hospital has a patient advocate who can help.

There’s no bullet-proof answer, especially if you need fast emergency treatment. Still, any preventive steps might save thousands.

And as for Elizabeth Moreno, her father settled the lab’s bill for $5,000, which he now regrets.

About the author: Jim Quiggle is director of communications for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud

The march of Millennials: More likely to scam insurers?

Younger consumers are more-likely to tolerate padding claims. Will America’s largest generation grow more honest as they age?

The insurance world is captivated by the rising use of Big Data and artificial intelligence. A technological revolution is upon us, from underwriting to claims to fraud investigations.

In our rush to understand and use these breakthroughs to discover and combat insurance scams, we also must ask how much are we forgetting about the human element that motivates insurance fraud?

Many think the Baby Boomer generation was our nation’s largest population change. That’s correct, as a population surge. Yet in raw numbers, the 75.4 million Millennials have surpassed the 74.9 million Boomers as the nation’s largest generation. As Boomers age and die off, Millennials as a percent of the U.S. population will continue rising in the coming decades.

How does this emerging generation view insurance fraud? The answers may surprise you! An older, though still often-cited, Accenture study of people’s attitudes toward insurance fraud gives some telling insights.

Consumers were asked how acceptable they found it to make claims for phantom lost or damaged goods, or for phantom injury treatment.

Older Boomers almost unanimously (97 percent) found this blatant fraud unacceptable. Fewer consumers found the scams unacceptable among younger age groups until we reached consumers aged 18-24 years of age. Fully 16 percent found those false claims to be completely acceptable! Given the size of the Millennial generation, that suggests 12 million future U.S. insurance fraudsters. Other fraud questions revealed a similar acceptance of insurance fraud by America’s youth.

Will Millennials grow less tolerant of fraud as they age? That’s certainly the question. Current trends don’t seem to point in that direction. A more-recent study found:

Younger respondents, especially young men, were much more likely to view claim padding as acceptable. For example, among males age 18-34, 23 percent agree it is all right to increase claim amounts to make up for premiums, compared with just 5 percent of their older male counterparts and just 8 percent of females aged 18-34.”

The idea that nearly a quarter of Millennial-age males are perfectly fine with inflating a claim should cause concern.

Why should we care? Startups and traditional insurers are looking at “peer-to-peer” models. These app-based insurers often rely on speed more than thorough review of underwriting and claims handling.

One such insurer boasts it paid a claim in a world-record 3 seconds. These new insurers often claim they’ll rely on the “inherent honesty” and “moral attitudes” of Millennials to be honest with insurance dealings — especially if the insurer donates a percent of profits to charity.

More-seasoned fraud investigators may counter: “True, unless the fraudsters view themselves as the more-deserving charity!” 

But perhaps most important, we need newer consumer-attitude studies to best grasp Millennial attitudes about fraud. A study by the Coalition will be released later this year. It will provide much of that needed guidance.

Millennials are the future policyholders in America. They’ll form the largest block of insurance buyers in our nation’s history. While Big Data and AI are important to fighting insurance scams, let’s remember that it’s we humans — based on our morals and values — who decide whether to commit insurance fraud.

About the author: Matthew J. Smith serves as general counsel and director of government affairs for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud.

Fraud of the Month: Pro athletes enmeshed in scams as victims, perpetrators

Marcus Buckley had a decent NFL career as a linebacker who made his living from helmet-jarring collisions with running backs. His seven-year stint came mostly with the New York Giants.

Yet perhaps Buckley’s biggest and baddest opponent double-teamed him the hardest — federal prosecutors. The Texas man inflated workers-compensation claims for lingering injuries that dogged him for years after he retired following the 2000 season. Buckley’s now benched, spending two years in federal prison.

Insurance fraud is hardly a contact sport, yet pro athletes can be enmeshed in scams — unwisely as perpetrators, sometimes regretfully as victims. They’re the tiny minority of pro athletes, though their high public profile attracts unusually high attention to their fraud crimes.

Claimed built-up stress injuries

As for Buckley … he sought money from the Giants’ workers-compensation insurer for built-up stress injuries — including memory loss — from all the seasons of head-knocking. He settled for $300,000 in 2010, and the case seemed closed.

Not quite. Buckley dipped back into the well, demanding more insurance money. He handed the insurer nearly $1.6 million of forged medical invoices and statements from medical providers for treatment he never received. Buckley also created false collection notices from credit-collection agencies that supposedly were chasing past-due medical bills.

Buckley had a crooked Sacramento adjuster on the take; she issued him the insurance checks. The feds issued Buckley two years in prison in January 2018, and ordered him to repay the stolen insurance money.

Paid kickbacks in $20-million con

Monty Grow played linebacker briefly for the Kansas City Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars. His post-NFL career was far more lucrative, until the feds tackled him for a loss.

Grow made millions by paying illegal kickbacks to associates who recruited hundreds of patients to a Pompano Beach pharmacy. That outfit allegedly bilked the federal military health insurer out of $20 million by charging for expensive compound creams that patients typically didn’t need.

Grow was convicted of fraud and kickbacks. He could spend up to 20 years in federal prison when convicted. Former NFL journeyman quarterback Shane Matthews received three months in federal prison for a smaller role as one of Grow’s associates.

Altered date of uninsured collision

Former Major League Baseball pitcher Ted Lilly made a phony damage claim for his RV.

The Edna Valley, Calif. man pitched for six Major League teams over 15 years. Lilly finished up with the Los Angeles Dodgers after signing a 3-year, $33 million contract in 2010.

Lilly damaged his uninsured RV in a collision and obtained a $4,600 repair estimate from a body shop. He bought a policy from Progressive Insurance five days later, then lied that the wreck happened after he bought the insurance. Lilly pleaded no contest and lucked out with two years of probation plus 200 hours of community service.

Falsely claimed jeweled ring stolen

Brent Dwayne Griffith had a brief NFL career as an offensive lineman with the Buffalo Bills. His post-football antics proved offensive as well.

The Benson, Minn. man earned a jewel-encrusted ring when the Bills won the divisional title in 1990. Years later, Griffith claimed someone stole the ring from his home. His homeowner policy covered the seeming theft, paying him $4,780 in 2013.

Griffith and his wife then split up. None too pleased, she told the insurer that Griffith still had the ring. He also cashed the insurance check, which was made out to them both, without telling her. The Minnesota state fraud bureau took over, and helped convict Benson. He earned a lifetime criminal record, plus a tiny two days in county jail, and a hefty fine.

Trusting athletes defrauded

Sometimes insurance thievery happens in reverse — athletes are soaked by people they allow into their inner circle.

The nanny of a star left winger for the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins looted his family jewelry then filed loss claims for the stuff after setting her home on fire. Andrea Forsythe stole $12,000 diamond earrings that Chris Kunitz gave to his wife Maureen for a wedding anniversary.

Forsythe had the jewelry appraised, then made the insurance claims after her arson fire. She also double-dipped, selling a loose diamond from one earring to a jewelry store. Forsythe was handed five years in federal prison for these and other thefts.

Insurance agent Keven D. Webster took premiums from NFL and NBA players, promising to buy them umbrella policies worth $1 million-$5 million. Except the Pensacola, Fla. agent pocketed their money and never bought the promised insurance. A federal judge promised Webster 21 months in prison, and ordered him to repay $144,229.

Lilly, at least, says he plans to go straight. “My actions do not reflect the way I choose to live,” he told the court after being sentenced. “I am very much determined to earn back a reputation of trust and transparency.”

Reward shareholders? Cut premiums? Here’s another idea

Trump’s corporate tax cut should leave businesses in America — including insurers — with a little extra cash in their pockets. Some companies are buying back stock, and others are handing out bonuses to their workers.

Consumer advocates are calling on state regulators to force insurers to cut rates so their insureds can benefit from the windfall as well. As an insurance consumer, I love the idea of paying less for my insurance.

But here’s another idea for insurers: Take some of that money and invest it in anti-fraud efforts. In the end, it likely will result in even greater savings for consumers.

Insurers and insurance associations have long touted that anti-fraud investments have ROIs of as much as eight to one. That’s $8 in savings for every dollar invested. So why not hire more investigators, buy upgraded anti-fraud technology or start a fraud deterrence program.

For every insurer that has a well-funded, state-of-the-art anti-fraud program, there’s another insurer that lacks the staffing, training and tools to fully detect and investigate fraud. More and more organized rings are targeting these insurers — word leaks out within the criminal underworld. Use that tax cut cash to earn a tough reputation on the streets.

Another idea: Many state fraud bureaus are woefully underfunded. Let’s increase annual insurer fraud assessments so our partners in government have the tools they need to be more-effective fraud fighters.

I’m not advocating throwing money at anti-fraud programs for the sake of just increasing budgets. But managed well, these wise investments can reward insurers and their customers many times over.

About the author: Dennis Jay is executive director of the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud.

Ditzy gang wrecks planes, Lamborghini, luxury boat in doomed insurance plot

Smoke filled the Beechcraft Baron airplane 30 miles off the Louisiana coast … going down fast. Pilot Theodore R. Wright III radioed for help when flames spat out from behind the instrument panel, melting the windshield. He bellied the plane into the ocean — a cool-headed, life-saving maneuver. Or so Wright claimed.

Ditching the Beechcraft actually was a ditzy insurance hoax — Wright crash- landed and sank it on purpose. The deep-six dunking jumpstarted a doomed plot to wreck the Beechcraft … another plane … a Lamborghini … and 45-foot sailboat — all for nearly $940,000 of inflated insurance claims.

It was a perfect — and perfectly doomed — trifecta of insurance scams by land, sea and air.

Wright’s gang bought the luckless machines at super-low prices, then deceptively over-insured and destroyed them for inflated insurance claims. He also threw in a bogus $100,000 lawsuit to sweeten the payday.

First came his Beechcraft. The craft sank after landing. Wright and his passenger Raymond Fosdick free-floated in yellow life vests for three hours, seeming marvels of cool-headed calm in 3,000 feet of dangerous Gulf Coast water. Wright even recorded the life-and-death ordeal on his iPad while they floated helplessly in the choppy waters. A Coast Guard helicopter scooped them up just before nightfall.

Wright had bought the plane for just $46,000, yet insured it for nearly twice that.

Wright made himself a media sensation. His seeming survival against all odds earned Wright interviews on The Today Show and other national news outlets. The iPad footage and TV interviews were great theater — all to make the crash seem so real that the insurer would pay out.

Wright and Fosdick milked the scam for another $100,000 with a bogus lawsuit. Fosdick falsely sued him for supposed injuries from the crash. They secretly set up the lawsuit, then divided the settlement money.

Next on the hit list … the Lamborghini Gallardo. Wright bought the salvaged machine for $76,000, then drove it into a ditch full of water. The Lamborghini flooded and was ruined. Bad accident, Wright lied to his insurer. He received a nicely profitable $169,554 of insurance money.

A Cessna 500 aircraft took the next fall. Wright had Fosdick burn the plane to a metallic crisp in Texas. It was a total loss, earning a nifty $440,000 of insurance money — more than double their purchase price.

Last came the ill-fated luxury sailboat intended for lengthy deep-water sailing. Wright bought the Hunter Passage for $50,150, yet insured it for $195,000. He had a crony damage and partially sink the boat at its marina dock in Ko Olina, Hawaii. Wright even pretended he was the owner when phoning the insurance company to make the claim. The payout was a $180,023 windfall that more than tripled what they paid for the boat.

Wright’s showboating took him down. He made too many people pay too much attention — including investigators and law enforcement. Clues piled up. Not the least of which was a course Wright took to learn how to crash-land planes in water just a week before deep-sixing his Beechcraft.

Wright and his gang were convicted. When he’s sentenced, he’ll have up to 20 years in federal prison to rethink how his daffy insurance cons flew too high, went too far, and fell too fast.

Insurance FraudBlog

In courtrooms, attorneys tell jurors about the duty of insurers to protect consumers from higher premiums wrought by fraudulent claims. No matter what your background or perspective, that’s hard to disagree. I’ve just completed 32 years of legal practice, and often spoke those words to judges and juries. The “real world” of denying an insurance claim for fraud, however, is far different.

Insurers make mistakes, and should pay a fair price for missteps. Yet denying a claim — even for insurance fraud — is never the easy way out. Nor, do consumers or insurers often truly “save” money. Denying a claim almost guarantees a lawsuit. In most states, the plaintiff seeks damages for both breach of the insurance contract and bad faith. The latter is a tort that can open the door to unlimited monetary damages.

Insurers thus are risk-adverse. Denying a claim for fraud often is much-riskier than simply paying the claim. Some multi-million-dollar fraudulent claims are denied, yet the vast majority of claim denials involve suspicious lower-value thefts, injuries and smaller residential arsons.

Rarely do insurance-fraud cases, even if they are “victories” cover an insurer’s attorney fees, depositions, expert testimony and litigation expenses. So from a purely financial standpoint, it can be cheaper for an insurer to pay a suspicious claim than challenge and deny coverage.

Good plaintiff attorneys represent their clients well. They diligently review the claim, and can show legitimate weaknesses in the insurer’s investigation and actions. Those claims rightly should be paid. Bad-faith damages also should be factored in, if warranted. However, too many of these cases are exceptions rather than the rule.

More often, even strong fraud cases die a slow death. One or more causes typically factor in: Plaintiff attorneys take on any case, even when blatant fraud is evident. … Defense lawyers simply go through the paces to rack up fees, then claim“new information” to justify a settlement. … Insurers start strong, then back off when costs mount or they face a possible jury trial with judges who force unfairly large settlements.

Fraudsters often are the biggest “winners” — they receive insurance money they don’t deserve. Lawyers on both sides also win with fees they’re paid. The clear losers are honest consumers who pay the price when legal fees, expenses and payments raise premiums. So are Insurers that invest personnel time and monies to investigate, deny and litigate the claim — then still end up paying a bogus claim.

So what’s the answer? Perhaps everyone in the fraud-fighting community should look in the mirror and ask ourselves, “What I can do better today?”

About the author: Matthew J. Smith serves as general counsel and director of government affairs for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud.

Fraud of the Month


Earl O’Garro had it all — and more. The young insurance broker was a rising prodigy in a city known for insurance stars.

O’Garro owned Hybrid Insurance Group, which specialized in expensive, high-risk coverage for businesses and others. He opened Hybrid in a modest suburban office. His business quickly seemed to take off like a flashing comet. One client was the city of Hartford, with O’Garro supposedly buying several liability policies.

Indeed, life seemed good. O’Garro paid himself a high six-figure salary, and bought a six-bedroom mansion in a tony suburb. O’Garro threw himself and hundreds of guests a spectacular wedding at the Ritz Carlton in Jamaica. He had his suits tailored in his office, drove a $100,000 sedan, moved into an $8,000-a-month office suite in Hartford, and hung out at the city’s priciest watering holes. Not to mention the $19,000 of private-school tuition for his toddlers, and soul-food restaurant he bought for his wife.

Upscale lifestyle was addictive, and O’Garro lived far beyond the income he brought in. The grand spending stretched O’Garro dangerously thin. He was sinking in debt, his business was failing.

Spent premiums on luxury

O’Garro began stealing client premiums, using the money for luxury instead of buying his clients their the promised insurance. Trusting businesses had no coverage; they were dangerously exposed if they had to pay for a serious injury or other loss.

He kept spending on high living even as his agency cracked. The breaking point came when he bought a $1-million, 4,000-square-foot waterfront condo in the Dominican Republic. He had to make a series of $100,000 payments that came due within weeks of closing. He didn’t have the money.

Nor was O’Garro paying office rent, his home mortgage, or state loans he took out to hire more employees and move his business into Hartford. Some office staff also was being stiffed.

Turned brokerage into Ponz

O’Garro frantically tried to keep his creaking house of financial cards intact — and avoid having client’s policies cancelled for lack of payment.

His brokerage became a Ponzi scheme as he juggled client premium payments. He stole some of the money to pay for other client premiums and overdue business loans. O’Garro’s accountant quit after being showered with notices from insurers that they were canceling client policies because premiums weren’t paid.

The city of Hartford had paid O’ Garro $900,000 for liability coverage. He diverted the most of the money to pay for his bling lifestyle and other premium payments.

O’Garro desperately invented clients to trick a lender into forking over nearly $850,000 for insurance premiums on fake policies. He hired a design firm to create a phony email address for a real insurer. Posing as an employee of the insurer, he forged email that seemingly verified the policies and convinced the lender that O’Garro needed the loan to help his so-called clients pay for expensive premiums.

His would-be empire collapsed in a smoldering heap. O’Garro stole more than $2 million in premiums and business loans. The house, his agency and reputation vaporized. All he had to show was a large stack of federal charges.

O’Garro offered no defense at trial, and didn’t even testify. A jury needed just an hour to convict O’Garro in 2015. It was one of the fastest decisions in memory. He was handed 6 1/2 years in federal prison. A federal court quickly tossed aside his appeal in November 2017.

“Apologizing and admitting what you’ve done after you’ve already been caught doesn’t mean there’s no crime,” said federal judges Avi Perri said at his 2016 conviction. “In fact, it’s pretty good evidence that there was a crime.”

Scammers grab crash reports to hound victims for treatment

Willis Price and Kevin Kerr were involved in automobile accidents in Memphis. Neither was happy about it. Their anger increased when, within days, they started receiving sales pitches to contact attorneys — possibly to exploit their mishap with bogus injury treatment and fraudulent insurance billings.

The attorneys found their names in local police crash reports. Price and Kerr are the lead plaintiffs in a federal class action lawsuit filed in Tennessee. The suit seeks to quash the sale of police crash reports by the City of Memphis.

Their suit may spur similar filings across the nation, whether or not it succeeds. Personal privacy rights are moving to center stage in today’s cyber-driven world. For years, local police departments and other government agencies have supplemented their budgets by selling the personal information of crash victims as public records. Report sales can earn quite a bit of money for cash-strapped departments and agencies. It’s a revenue stream they want to protect.

But who are the “customers” of the report sales? The U.S. Supreme Court authorized attorneys to advertise for clients in 1974. America’s “personal injury machine” has exploded since then. Shady lawyers, chiropractors, body shops and others use the crash reports to identify crash victims. They hound the victims. The goal is to lure them into getting unneeded — and sometimes medically dangerous — injury “treatment.” Auto insurers are billed for inflated claims. The lawyers may falsely sue insurers to extract yet more money.

It’s a booming scam industry in many states around the U.S.

Access to public records is a crucial to our democratic governance. Yet does the mere fact that you’re involved in a collision give someone the right to access your home address, phone number, drivers license number, date of birth, email and other sensitive personal information?

For all practical purposes, local law enforcement is feeding personal-injury mills by offering up your sensitive information for sale and profit. Do we need more state laws limiting this practice? Or do existing laws simply need better enforcement? Or both?

President Clinton signed into law the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994. It allows disclosure of personal information only with the person’s express consent. However, the law has many loopholes. Many states (including Tennessee) have similar privacy laws, though enforcement is minimal at best.

The Coalition supports reasonable limits such as a 30-day blackout period for outsider access to crash reports. It’s an uphill battle, however. Budget-minded pushback by state agencies often stalls state legislation limiting access to the reports. Sadly, budget concerns also trump needed policy debates over the privacy of crash victims.

We need better privacy debates, and stronger state laws. How much of our personal information do we want released by “accident”?

Homes bought cheap, burned for inflated claims

Homes and cars were kindling for Verdon Taylor, the overlord of a crime ring that lit up more than 30 arson fires to score nearly $1 million of insurance money.

Buy cheap and claim big was Taylor’s modus during a 16-year binge that traversed the Richmond, Va. area

Taylor’s rat pack bought homes and cars at auctions and foreclosure sales — all at steep discount prices. Single-family homes and mobile trailers and cars all were rounded up. Taylor’s cohorts often rented houses as well.

They stuffed the homes with old furniture and clothing they bought at flea markets or auctions. Several times they recycled furniture, using the same burned items singed in prior home fires.

They often brazenly set fires just weeks or even days after buying policies. The claims were inflated, as if the dusty old furniture was new. Fire claims ranged from $1,000 to $300,000. Ring members often lied about past home-fire claims when buying new policies.

Nearly entered burning home
Taylor’s son Vershawn bought a house at a steep discount, and set the place afire just eight days later.

A concerned neighbor wanted to risk his life to race into the home and see if anybody needed help escaping.

“Everybody should be mad. This is a crime against all of us,” said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.“He was about to run in the house … I said ‘Don’t.’ … It was engulfed and I didn’t know if it would blow up or anything,” his wife said.

The rescuer wisely stayed outside — he nearly put his life on the line for a home that was empty. Vershawn pulled down $303,000 of insurance money.

The feds started investigating as the fires and claims suspiciously piled up. Taylor issued a gag order to one ring member. “Tell those people to get out of your face,” Verdon ordered. Just hang up the phone whenever federal agents called him, he said.

Taylor will spend up to 50 years in federal prison after being convicted in October 2017. His girlfriend and Vershawn will spend up to 20 years of quality time behind bars.

Arson rings ransack South Florida
Stuffing homes with old furniture and clothing seems to be a habit with some arson rings. Five gangs ran amok in South Florida, launching an eye-popping $25-million insurance crime wave by torching dozens of homes.

Corrupt public adjusters led the rings. The adjusters exploited the insurance system to rubber-stamp false claims for payment. They typically rented homes, often large ones. They recruited cronies as straw owners, waited 90 days for the insurance to kick in, then started the fires.

The arsonists often filled homes with inexpensive old furniture and clothes. The stuff was stolen or bought from thrift shops — just like Verdon Taylor.

Often they placed a burning candle next to a fake plant or other flammable item. That sparked fires and created seemingly plausible excuses for the “accidental” blazes.

The sham renters made inflated claims for the junk possessions.

They even planted the same seared furniture, family pictures, bedding and other personal items in multiple homes they burned.

Closets sometimes were filled with sweaters. That seemed strange to investigators in a region known for year-around heat.

Innocent homeowners foreclosed
Two homes were the main income source for unsuspecting homeowners who rented their places to ring members. When the fires forced the renters out, the owners couldn’t pay their bills and lost their homes to foreclosure.

Home insurance arsons have fallen significantly in South Florida. Some would-be arsonists have fled the state rather than face prosecution and certain convictions. At least 75 others who stuck around were rounded up and have pleaded guilty.

“Everybody should be mad. This is a crime against all of us,” said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.