MIAMI (CBSMiami) – State insurance fraud agents call it Operation Leaky Pipes–a countywide effort to bust homeowners who inflated or created water damage in their homes and filed phony insurance claims to have repair work done.
Twelve Miami-Dade homeowners were arrested Wednesday morning in a case that dates back more than two years and began, investigators say, when a public adjuster named Jose Nino admitted his role in the scheme and turned in the homeowners.
Major Geoffrey Branch, with the Division of Insurance Fraud at the Florida Department of Financial Services, told CBS 4 News that the case is significant because these types of crimes cause homeowner’s insurance rates to climb.
“People think that stealing from their insurance company is a victim-less crime but it’s not,” Branch told CBS 4’s Carey Codd. “Insurance companies don’t have money. It’s everybody else’s premiums. When carriers are forced to pay out on fraudulent claims it’s gonna affect everybody because they’re paying out on claims they’re not supposed to pay out on.”
Branch said the accused were instructed by Nino and another man on how to carry out the fraud.
“They were told what they needed to have damaged in order to get a more substantial claim replacing things that normally wouldn’t have been replaced under an actual claim,” Branch said.
Including, Branch said, a specific method to create the damage.
“They would take wet towels and they would dampen the towels and they would dampen the cabinets and drywall that were around the area,” Branch explained.
The twelve people arrested are: Domingo Rojas, Lauro Alvarez, Lourdes Alvarez, Rafael Benitez, David Fuentes, Sandra Novoa-Pinero, Miguel Perez, Nioka Zerpa, Miguel Rodriguez, Gleif Martinez, Remberto Fernandez and Adrian Estevez. Court records show the accused face various charges, including filing a fraudulent insurance claim and grand theft. Nino was arrested in a previous case and state agents say he will be a witness against the 12 arrested Wednesday. Nino’s attorney said his client has already surrendered his public adjustor’s license.
Investigators say the phony claims took about $140-thousand dollars out of the coffers of Citizens Insurance and tens of thousands more from Liberty Mutual Insurance. Insurance fraud investigators say they will be seeking restitution from the suspects for the amount paid out by the insurance companies to repair the phony damage.
Insurance fraud agents say they are determined to arrest people who commit this crime.
“If you’re going to take advantage of a program like homeowners insurance and commit fraud we’re going to find you, we’re going to investigate it and we’re going to prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law,” Branch said.