Staged accident rings target Houston-area drivers

Organized criminals target victims based on how likely they have insurance

HOUSTON – Groups of organized criminals are targeting Houston highway drivers hoping to force them into an accident so the crooks can claim they were injured and receive insurance money, Channel 2 Investigates has learned.

"It's happening every day in Houston," Louis Campbell, spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, said.

The groups of criminals will drive two or three cars and communicate via walkie-talkies or cellphones. They select victims based on how likely they are to have insurance.

Staged-accident groups practice maneuvers to trap unsuspecting drivers into situations in which it's very tough to avoid an accident.

"Houston is probably number four in the country when it comes to staged accident rings," Campbell said.

He described two of the most common accidents.

In the first, several cars working together will surround an unsuspecting driver. They do it casually so the victim doesn't realize what is happening. Two cars will pull up alongside of the victim as another car abruptly, and for no apparent reason, pulls in front of the victim. That front car slams on its brakes causing the victim to rear end the criminal's car.

"All of a sudden we have this vehicle come along side of us. [The driver in front] slams on his brakes and you're at fault in the accident," Campbell said. "There is no place for [the victim] to go,"

Often, he says there will be four or five people in the car. Each will claim injuries.

"If each claims $15,000, $20,000 or $25,000 in medical bills, do the math. Jackpot," a Houston Police officer who works undercover busting staged accident rings told investigative reporter Jace Larson. "When you look at the actual person they are walking and talking normally with no injuries yet they are claiming back, neck, thigh, wrist and everything to get more money."

Investigators say the bad guys usually pick victims who are most likely to have great insurance.

"They are commercial vehicles, women with kids in the car, people driving brand new vehicles," said Campbell.

Another example of a staged accident involves a car that investigators refer to as the "swoop" car.

The victim is again casually surrounded by cars driven by scam artists. Then another scam artist's car quickly speeds in next to the front car and swoops over and takes a freeway exit at the last second.

That causes the front car driven by a scam artist to slam on its brakes. The victim, who is caught off guard, rear ends the scam artist's car.

When police arrive, the victim will often admit to seeing an "unknown" car cut off the first car. Scam artists hope that means police don't catch on to their scheme.

"Most people don't realize they've been victimized," Campbell said.

See more examples of these accidents and others here.

Often victims will remember clues after the crash.

"You (the victim) may see a person in the back seat (of the other car) looking at you. People might be on the phone and it's obvious the vehicle in the front is talking to the blocking vehicle because there is some eye contact there." Campbell said. "They are up and down the roadways all the time, looking for vehicles, looking for victims."

Have a story idea for investigative reporter Jace Larson or a tip for him, email or text or 832-493-3951.