Thirteen people have been arrested in connection with an alleged car insurance fraud ring involving more than $430,000 in bogus claims filed since 2011, the Merced County District Attorney's Office announced Monday.
The scheme involved 20 fraudulent claims made to 10 different insurance companies between September 2011 and June 2016, according to District Attorney Larry D. Morse II. The Merced County Grand Jury handed down indictments for 21 people, most of whom live in Merced County.
The Special Investigation Unit of Allstate Insurance contacted Merced County District Attorney Investigator Sheri Carpenter in January 2016, questioning a claim that appeared to be a staged accident, according to a news release. Carpenter ran the names of people involved through an insurance database provided by the National Insurance Crime Bureau and found they linked to 19 other similar claims.
The allegedly fraudulent claims used some of the same vehicles multiple times, reporting the same damage, the release said. The biggest payday came from the suspects altering hospital bills, according to Carpenter. The suspects would re-use claims paid out to them directly, changing the names, dates and billing amounts on the paperwork.
Morse said Carpenter succeeded in “unraveling this sophisticated and far-reaching conspiracy to defraud insurance companies and consumers."
"Investigator Carpenter worked this complex case relentlessly for the last two years in addition to her other work, and did an incredible job of putting all the pieces together," he said. "It was a first-rate effort."
Car insurance fraud, particularly staged accidents, are a significant component of the $30 billion to $32 billion lost to insurance fraud each year, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
The Merced County investigation was praised by Frank Scafidi, public affairs director for the NICB. “Unfortunately, many individuals view insurance companies as their personal piggy banks and they engage in fraudulent behavior without any concern for the economic harm they cause all consumers,” he said in the news release.
Carpenter called 29-year-old Joanna Tucker of Livingston the "ringleader" of the scam, connecting her directly to 19 of the claims.
The Merced County Grand Jury last month returned 19 felony counts of insurance fraud and 17 felony counts of grand theft against Tucker, according to a news release. Tucker's boyfriend, 30-year-old Johnathan Huerta, was indicted on 10 felony counts of insurance fraud and nine counts of grand theft, the release said.
The couple was arrested Friday along with 11 others.
Also arrested were Rhonda Valencia, 45; Diana Tucker, 26; and Freddy Barajas, 29; all of Livingston. Jessica Valencia, 27; Alejandro Cervantes, 31; Patricia Diaz, 31; and Angelina Galvan, 35, of Atwater were arrested. And, Merced arrests were made of Britney Groves, 29; Charlece Scott, 27; and Monique Eguiluz, 28.
Arrest warrants have been issued for eight others: 59-year-old Maria Hernandez, 27-year-old Celina Garza Hernandez, and 27-year-old Sarai Bernal of Merced; 28-year-old Rico Tucker, 26-year-old Carlos Tucker, 25-year-old Heena Birly, and 30-year-old Jessica Barajas of San Jose; and 29-year-old Jairo Barajas of Livingston, the release said.
Tucker was being held on $500,000 bail, according to the news release. She is no longer in custody, according to jail records.
Huerta is held without bail, according to jail records. Three defendants were in custody outside Merced County on unrelated charges, Carpenter said.