DES PLAINES, IL - The number of suspicious auto accidents that were staged or deliberately caused by criminals in Florida has increased dramatically in the past year, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. 

An NICB study of questionable claims submitted by the bureau's insurance company members shows a 58-percent jump from 2008 to 2009. 

According to the NICB report, Tampa had 487 questionable claims related to staged/caused accidents in 2009, a 290-percent increase over the previous year. Miami had 258, an 11-percent increase, and Orlando had 240, a 24-percent increase.

"South Florida used to be the focal point of these deliberate crashes," said NICB President and CEO Joe Wehrle. "While the Miami and Hialeah areas continue to show increased activity, the criminals have expanded their operation northward and Tampa is now at the epicenter of this crime trend."  

Wehrle said the number of questionable claims for all insurance fraud increased 15 percent from 2008 to 2009 in Florida. But the 58-percent jump in the staged/caused accident category shows that criminals are taking advantage of the state's no-fault auto accident coverage.  

"Previous industry studies have shown that among the 12 states that have no-fault coverage, Florida had the highest rates of fraud and buildup in both bodily injury and personal injury protection," Wehrle said. "The criminals who are staging and deliberately causing these accidents have been doing so because they can file claims for alleged injuries and collect big payments with little risk of getting caught."   

Wehrle said the NICB is working to put a stop to that. 

"Working with our insurance company and law enforcement partners, we created a Major Medical Fraud Task Force in South Florida in 2002 to focus on this type of insurance fraud," he explained. "That cooperative effort has resulted in numerous successes and the criminals are feeling the heat. That's one of the reasons they are moving up the state to the Tampa and Orlando areas. So we will soon be opening another Major Medical Fraud Task Force in Tampa to combat the issue there."  

NICB just began a public awareness campaign in the Tampa area, using billboard and bus shelter ads, as well as radio spots, to urge people who suspect a staged accident scheme to call (800) TEL-NICB or text their information to TIP411, keyword "fraud."