WALTERBORO — At first glance, certain drivers and certain Colleton County roads appeared more prone to car accidents than others.
But an alert office manager inside the Colleton County Fire and Rescue department did a little more digging into the hundreds of ambulance reports filed over a two-year span and found it was more than a coincidence that many of the same people were reporting injuries from wrecks on the same roads.
"The same people every year were having a wreck," Fire and Rescue Director Barry McRoy said. "Some of them were in wrecks with the same people year after year."
The department contacted the state Attorney General's Office, which learned insurance companies already were investigating individual claims against many of the same people. The State Law Enforcement Division was contacted and, over time, investigators unraveled a massive scheme that has netted 16 convictions so far, with some 20 cases still pending.
"This is probably the biggest staged accident scheme we've ever seen in the state of South Carolina," Allison Dean Love, executive director of the South Carolina Insurance News Service said.
Love suspects it's even bigger than a similar scheme broken up in the Dillon and Florence areas 10 years ago. In that case, people defrauded insurance companies for about $320,000 by beating each other with 2-by-4s and throwing one another into trees and bushes to make it look like they had been in car wrecks.
Love said they don't know the total amount involved in the Colleton case, but she said it will likely be higher than in the Dillon and Florence scam.
"It's just crazy what people will do to get insurance money, and they will get caught," Love said.
Officials say they expect to see more of these and other types of fraud cases with the economy in poor shape.
"It's not happening just in Colleton County, it's happening all over the state," said Margaret Fleming, a special investigator for the S.C. Farm Bureau who investigated one of the Colleton cases. "I expect them to definitely be on the rise."
That translates into higher premiums for insured drivers.
"These people that are involved in this ring are costing you," Fleming said. "They are hitting you where it counts: in the checkbook."
Those convicted in Colleton County range in age from 21 to 43. Some are related. Authorities say they're not sure how people were recruited into the scheme, but they say the lure of easy money no doubt played a role.
The scheme was relatively simple: Run an older car into a tree and claim that someone or something ran you off, then say a bunch of your friends and relatives were injured while in the car with you in order to claim more money, court records show.
One woman, 39-year-old Felicia Michelle Gibson, told authorities she was traveling along Featherbed Road with her two sons when another car knocked her car off the road and into a creek. Gibson told authorities that she and her sons climbed out of a rear window before the car submerged.
Authorities, however, found no skid marks or other evidence of a collision. Once the car was pulled from the creek, they found that the back windows weren't rolled down far enough for Gibson to climb out.
A jury found Gibson guilty of presenting a false claim for payment over $1,000. She was sentenced to serve 45 days in jail.
Since then, 15 others either have been convicted or have pleaded guilty to similar charges.
McRoy said fake injury reports tied up their ambulances on several occasions.
"The paramedics can't help the people who really need the help," he said.
Love said the law mandates anyone who knows about insurance fraud must report it.