A nation-wide ring of more than 100 apparent Palestine Liberation Organization sympathizers has been operating a massive auto insurance scheme that authorities here believe may have netted millions of dollars for the PLO.
More than 30 police organizations, ranging from local district attorneys offices in California to Interpol, are investigating the activities of the ring, police said.
Deputy California Highway Patrol Chief Jerry Clemons said today that members of the operation are mostly Arabs on student visas living in California, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Police have issued arrest warrants for a number of suspects.
Police said they based their belief that the money from the scheme was going to the PLO on separate statements by two alleged members of the ring. Both told police that millions of dollars in claims have been filed over the last five years and that the profits ended up with the Palestinians.
"Our informants in the case have said that the money involved has been shipped out of the country," Clemons said.
Officials said the ring filed fraudulent claims with most of the nation's large insurance companies. They said that Farmers Insurance Group appeared to be hit hardest but that investigators are still uncovering fraudulent claims against other concerns.
One fraudulent arson claim by members of the ring in Michigan was filed for more than $8 million, police here said. It was unclear whether this arson claim were paid, but police said a number of claims were rejected after insurance officials because suspcious.
Clemons outlined one of the group's most common schemes. "They would buy a car with a fairly high book sale value but which was badly damamged so they got it for just a few hundred dollars," he said. "Then they'd strip what they could from the car, but it and claim it had been stolen." They collected insurance on the supposedly stolen auto and got additional money by selling the stripped parts, Cemons said.
In California, which has no law limiting the number of insurance companies a car owner can use, members of the group wold insure the "stolen" car three or four times and collect for more than the car was worth, according to authorities.
Police said ring members also filed stolen property claims for merchandise they said was in stolen autos.
Members of the ring also staged phony accidents and then made multimple accident injury claims as well as car claims, police said.The "accident" usually took place in a remote area at night, according to Clemons.
In addition, the group is suspected of involvement in a scheme involving bank loans. Members obtained bank loans that carried disability insurance and then filed fraudulent accident injury claims to collect on the insurance, police here said.
Clemons said the ring has been operating for at least five years. "They seemed to have picked up steam in the last year or two after they learned what an easy mark California is," he said.
Spokesmen for the FBI and the State Department said that, while they were aware of the investigation, they have not launched any large-scale probes of their own, FBI officials in California said today that they made "surface inquiries" but thus far had not uncovered any federal violations.
According to Clemons, investigators from the California Highway Patrol and other police agencies recently placed a number of suspected ring members under surveillance.
"Members of the group live in low-rent apartments of poor quality, not the kind of place that people would ordinarily live in with the kind of money they were getting," he said. "It appears that the money was going somewhere else."