SAN LUIS OBISPO, CA --- With summer driving season fast approaching, California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner is warning drivers to be alert for staged auto collisions.

In 2006-2007, 14,565 out of 24,011 insurance fraud referrals received by the California Department of Insurance's Fraud Division (CDI) --- 61 percent --- were for suspected automobile insurance fraud.

"Insurance fraud is like a $500 tax on every man, woman and child in California, and auto insurance fraud is a major part of this problem," said Poizner. "Staged collisions can be nightmares for consumers, creating huge hassles or worse, causing bodily injury, and insurance fraud gets passed on to consumers through higher rates."

Nearly $164 million could have been lost by insurance companies in 2006-2007 if the fraud wasn't discovered. While that potential fraud was avoided by the collaborative work of CDI and its local partners, actual loses are subsequently built into the insurance companies' pricing structures.

There are primarily three schemes typically used in staged collisions:

-- Panic stop

-- Start-and-stop

-- Swoop-and-squat.

People who create these pre-planned accidents, also known as stagers, look for high-value targets, such as commercial fleet vehicles, expensive luxury vehicles, and vehicles owned by cities or counties. They are considered "high value" because of the virtual guarantee of insurance coverage.

The following signs may tip-off a driver of fraudulent activity:

-- The other car is packed with passengers

-- The other driver has a relatively new insurance policy

-- The other car is in poor condition or has a "salvage" title

-- Traffic was flowing smoothly and the other driver stopped suddenly

-- The other driver and/or the passengers make extra effort to avoid conversation about the other vehicles in the area

-- There is a witness that substantiates everything the other driver says

-- The other driver and his passengers all claim injury despite relatively minor collision damage to the vehicles.

If someone suspects he is the victim of a staged collision, insist on a police report; document as much information from the collision scene as possible, using a cell phone to take photographs or video; ask the peace officer to positively identify everyone involved; and report your suspicions to the Department of Insurance.