ATLANTA -- Government officials say they are beginning to put a dent in the epidemic of insurance-fraud cases in Georgia, with more arrests in a nine-month period than the previous year.
They credit aggressive investigation and prosecution, savvier insurance companies and some well-publicized convictions of professionals.
During the 12 months between July 1997 and June 1998, the state made 17 fraud arrests and won 14 convictions. In the next 12 months, the numbers soared to 54 arrests and 33 convictions. And from July 1999 until March, arrests were up to 57, with 35 convictions.
"We're really starting to take a bite out of it, and the word is getting out on the street," Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine said. "Now people are finding out you can actually end up in jail for it."
Lawyers and medical professionals who see their colleagues heading behind bars are growing reluctant to jeopardize their professional licenses, Mr. Oxendine said. And for many cases, professionals are needed to file the phony claims.
Auto insurance companies are targeted most often for fraud. The industry estimates 15 percent to 30 percent of the average driver's premiums go to cover fraudulent claims against the company, totaling about $200 yearly for the average Georgia motorist.
"A lot of people think that in terms of insurance fraud, it's a victimless crime," said Tony Nix, a claims manager for State Farm Insurance, the state's largest auto insurer. But policyholders are the actual victims, he said.
People filing bogus claims are often ordinary individuals in need of money, including preachers and business owners, but rings of professional crooks also are at work in many instances.
At the core of each network are "runners," people who earn from $200 to $800 for everyone they bring to the doctors, pharmacists and lawyers needed to file the actual claims.
Investigators say a runner might work with just one professional or a handful, and often the professionals involved don't know anyone else is also bilking a given victim's insurance company.
The professionals can make plenty. Recently convicted chiropractor Scott Culberson has been accused by investigators of taking in more than $1 million yearly through insurance fraud.
"You can have a $5 million house out on the golf course if you do it right," Mr. Oxendine said.
Dr. Culberson pleaded guilty and has implicated others, bringing down a network of runners and lawyers, and more arrests are expected. Another chiropractor, George Batson, pleaded guilty to collecting more than $1.5 million from staged accidents, according to David Nahamias, assistant U.S. attorney.
"The patient/clients involved in these accidents tend to be lower-income people," Mr. Nahamias said. "The reason is there is no pain associated with chiropractor treatment, but you have to go for so many treatments that few people have the time to go to the doctor that often."
Insurance executives say they have seen the results of the more aggressive pursuit of fraud. However, they say if insurance fraud were a single industry, it would still be large enough to rank as one of the 100 biggest companies in the country.