Merced County auto insurance fraud ring ends with arrests

MERCED, Calif. (KFSN) -- A fraudulent family affair ends with 13 people arrested after Merced County investigators said they were paid out almost half a million dollars in bogus auto insurance claims.

The Merced County District Attorney said they were arrested on Friday. Last month, a Merced County Grand Jury indicted 21 people for their involvement in the crime. Investigators identified 29-year-old Joanna Tucker of Livingston as the ringleader of the operation.

"She was directing most of the activity done by the others, encouraging them to play whatever roles they were playing in the insurance scam," Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse said.

The rest of the players were tucker's family members, friends, and her boyfriend, Johnathan Huerta.

Investigators said the fraudulent claims started in 2011. Around the 19th fraudulent claim in 2016, Sheri Carpenter with the District attorney's office got a call from an Allstate Insurance detective. Carpenter searched a database and found evidence that altered hospital bills were sent to several different insurance companies. The group also staged accidents, sometimes using the same car for several claims.

"There are staged accidents that are strictly done on paper where they'll have preexisting damage to a car, and they will submit that to the insurance company claiming that three people in their car were also injured. Usually, these are claims that don't involve police reports," Morse said.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) works with investigators, including the Merced County District Attorney, to uncover fraud. Employees say it's not uncommon to see fake injuries in a claim because that's where criminals see big money.

"It's not unusual for us to see three or four victims in a single vehicle all claiming to be injured for an accident they created, or that never occurred but they say occurred," NICB's Spokesperson Frank Scafidi said.

Despite catching the criminals, residents still have to pay the price.

"They're not stealing so much from the insurance company as they're stealing from California consumers who are going to pay more in rates," Morse said.

Morse said three of the other suspect's were already in custody outside of Merced County for unrelated charges. There are still several people who have yet to be arrested, but warrants have been issued for their involvement in the crime.

Investigators believe Tucker was directly involved in 19 out of 20 identified claims. She faces more than 30 charges for insurance fraud and theft.
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