A traffic collision, for most people, is a traumatic experience. For some criminals, it’s a money-making enterprise.
The ringleader in one of the Sacramento area’s largest auto insurance fraud cases was recently sentenced to 10 years in state prison, and detectives are asking the public’s help in finding three suspects who remain at large.
A criminal ring led by 30-year-old Michael Charles Young of Sacramento filed an estimated $500,000 in claims with insurance companies from 2014 to April 2016, said Sgt. Clint Herndon, a detective with the California Department of Insurance’s enforcement branch. The claims resulted in payouts of close to $200,000, he said.
Those payments for fraudulent claims drive of up costs for all consumers, resulting in higher insurance premiums, Herndon said.
As many as 65 people are believed to have participated in the scheme, he said. The Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office worked with the Department of Insurance to file charges against 18 people. Nine, including Young, have been sentenced after entering pleas. Cases against six additional co-defendants are pending, and arrest warrants are outstanding for three other suspects.
The three who remain at large are identified as Jazlyn Ladana Burrell, 20, of Vallejo, and Lavina Louise Nunally, 26, and Desiree Patricia Vasquez, 22, both of Sacramento.
Young was arrested in April 2016 and charged with numerous felonies, including insurance fraud, possession of stolen vehicles, identity theft and possession of firearms by a convicted felon.
“We’re seeing more career criminals turning to white-collar crime,” Herndon said.
Young owned and operated a tow truck and bought cars, including many already damaged, through Craigslist. He recruited friends and relatives to participate in the scheme. In some cases, he provided them with cars for staged collisions and the information they needed to file claims, Herndon said.
About 50 percent of the cases involved identity theft, with false identities used to register vehicles and file claims, he said.
Young often provided his accomplices with scripts that included specifics about the vehicle, the vehicle identification number and details of the purported accidents to use when calling the insurance company to file a claim. Some of the suspects allowed their identities to be used in filing the claims and cashed the checks issued in their names.
In many cases, stolen identities were used. Investigators contacted some people who knew nothing of the reported collisions or the vehicles involved, Herndon said.
More than 100 vehicles were involved in the scheme.
“None of the cars was reused,” Herndon said, explaining that Young employed a large number of vehicles and accomplices in an effort to avoid detection by fraud investigators.
Claims ranged from $5,000 to $40,000 and involved about 10 insurance companies, Herndon said.
Insurance company efforts to make it easy for consumers to purchase insurance and file claims online have also made it easier for people to commit insurance fraud, he said. But insurance companies are catching up with the criminals, as technology improves their analytical capabilities, allowing them to more quickly identify potentially fraudulent claims.
Herndon said detectives broke the case after watching one of Young’s vehicles one weekend. It had remained parked throughout the weekend, but on Monday, Young took it to an insurance office and filed a claim, saying it had been damaged in a collision that weekend.
The vehicle was in such poor operating condition, Herndon said, that Young towed it to within about a block of the insurance office. After filing the claim and receiving a check for $7,000, he hooked the vehicle back up to the tow truck.
The fraud scheme employed what are known as paper collisions, involving vehicles with existing damage, or crashing vehicles into each other. But these schemes often escalate into targeting unsuspecting drivers.
Herndon cited a case in which a woman deliberately backed her car into the front of another vehicle, then claimed she was rear-ended. The woman’s scheme was foiled when the black box on the victim’s vehicle revealed that it wasn’t moving when the crash occurred.
Many law enforcement agencies don’t respond to take reports on non-injury collisions. In such instances, Herndon said, drivers should take steps to protect themselves against fraudulent claims. He recommended photographing the damage to all vehicles involved, as well as any evidence at the scene, such as skid marks. He also advised taking a photos of the other driver and of all passengers in the vehicle.
In addition to Young, defendants who have been sentenced so far in this case are: Paris Lache Elliott, 27, Lonnie Gene Thompson, 27, Ladaezsha Dorrough (Jackson), 21, Ebony Rashone Kirk, 37, Melvina Ann Castro, 29, and Cameron Nunally, 25, all of Sacramento; and Ariel Chanel Graham, 27, and Alyce Marie Peterson, 55, both of Woodland. Their sentences range from 30 to 210 days in county jail.
Those whose cases are pending are Dwon Maurice Ross, 27, Marcellus Belvin Lang, 29, Rochelle Edith Virginia Goodwin, 27, and Tiara Kim Elliott, 19, all of Sacramento; Erin Kim Elliott, 20, of Elk Grove; and Tanisha Jayanna Earnest, 24, of Citrus Heights.
Anyone who has information about the scheme or has questions about possible insurance fraud is asked to call the Department of Insurance Sacramento regional office tip line at 916-854-5700.