Rescuers rushed to the cliffs above the above murky, caramel-brown Black River. A golfer had spotted an overturned black Kia Sorrento in the water, near Elyra, Ohio. Concerned someone might be barely clinging to life inside, the golfer called police.
The rescue team mounted a dangerous operation. They rappelled down a sheer 100-foot cliff — their only hope of reaching anyone trapped inside the flooded SUV. Vegetation and slippery rocks hampered their urgent descent.
They finally reached the vehicle. Nobody was inside. Nor did they find a body after scouring the river banks and water. Police checked the license plate. The owner Randall White had reported his SUV stolen earlier that night from in front of his apartment, police records showed.
White launched what’s called a vehicle giveup — an insurance crime. Often the drivers can’t afford the monthly payments, or the car needs an expensive repair, or they just want to restock sagging bank accounts.
So they lie to their auto insurer that a thief stole the vehicle — maybe from a parking lot or from in front of their home. Instead, they often burn the vehicle, or just hide it in a remote area. They hope a false insurance claim will bring a quick cash infusion.
But vehicles are harder to steal in today’s era of high-tech vehicle security. So insurers often look closely at suspect theft claims. Investigators wield an arsenal of investigative tools — and honed instincts for asking the right questions.
Security cameras busted con
Fraud fighters can quickly break open clumsy theft claims by amateur fraudsters such as White. Investigators cleverly reviewed security cameras at a nearby restaurant. They were stunned. The video showed White driving along the river, pulling the Kia into an opening above the cliffs, then pushing it over the side. Next he walks back toward his nearby apartment with a flashlight. He called police and his auto insurer once home.
White dumped his SUV for an insurance payout. He endangered the rescuers trying to save his life — all for a few insurance dollars. He soon was convicted of insurance fraud. While avoiding jail, White must hand over more than $10,000 to repay the rescue teams and other expenses.
Giveups can turn deadly
Some giveups are botched. They can head south quickly, with deadly impact. Oscar Zavala-Gallegos asked his buddy Fabian Cedeno to steal and strip his Cadillac Escalade for parts. The Reno, Nev. man wanted to steal an insurance payment for the vehicle. Zavala-Gallegos couldn’t afford the $620 monthly payments. He also owed $22,000 on the old vehicle — far more than it was worth.
Zavala-Gallegos parked the Caddy at a mall with the keys inside, then told his insurer that somebody stole it. Meanwhile, Cedeno and Jorge Moreno took the car and shattered a window to make it look like a break-in.
They drank at a bar, then drove into a guardrail to damage the Escalade even more. They jumped out just before the collision. Cedeno fell and cracked his head. Moreno took him to a hospital. He said Cedeno was in a bar fight. Too late; Cedeno shortly died.
The airbags hadn’t deployed. That meant no one was in the front seat, investigators determined. Cell phone records also linked the Cedeno and Moreno, who knew each other in their work as carpenters. Zavala-Gallegos and Moreno both were convicted. Cedeno wasn’t so lucky.
Suspects burned in suspected grisly giveup
Then there’s the strange — and still-open — case of Diane Jones. The grisly evidence literally raises burning questions. She reported her car stolen. It was found in flames near Lexington, Ky.
Prosecutors allege: Two men were spotted leaving the scene in a white van. Police pulled over the van, and found Jones’ son and grandson inside. Her son had serious burns on both lower legs. Her grandson’s eyelashes, facial hair and arm hair were singed. A dashboard camera inside the van captured Jones at the burn scene. They’re all charged in the suspected giveup scam.
So, back to the convicted felon Randall White: His life is a mess. The shock of his life-altering mistake has put him back straight and narrow, he professes. “I mean, I’m sorry for what I’ve done, and like I’m trying to get my life back together 100 percent,” he told the judge.
About the author: Jim Quiggle is communications director for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud.