By Mike Cronin
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
So Allegheny County police accuse a McKeesport couple of swindling three car insurance companies out of roughly $20,000.
Everyone should, says Ralph Burnham, executive director of the Pennsylvania Insurance Fraud Prevention Authority.
“It’s a crime we all pay for, because the losses incurred by insurance companies eventually are passed on to our premiums,” Burnham said from his Mechanicsburg office. “Fraud jacks up the cost of our insurance. When fraud happens, everyone loses.”
Such fraud increases the average Pennsylvania family’s insurance bill by $300, the authority states.
To keep those costs from rising any higher, Burnham and law enforcement officers throughout the state publicize high-profile insurance fraud cases. Allegheny County police Detective Thomas Capp said he and his colleagues hope to reduce the incidence of insurance fraud by increasing awareness.
From 1996 to 2006, agencies funded by the prevention authority convicted 2,272 people of fraud. Statistics for 2007 won’t be available until later this month, but state authorities convicted 441 individuals last year for insurance fraud.
Two Allegheny cases appear in this year’s “Unlucky 13” list of Pennsylvania’s most memorable and outrageous cases, which the prevention authority releases annually. In addition to the McKeesport couple, the group cited a case involving seven county residents who were convicted of filling more than $70,000 worth of phony prescriptions for painkillers.
“People are aware of things like homicides and drug cases, while fraud and other white-collar crimes are kind of put aside,” Capp said. “But it’s mind-boggling how much of it is out there.”
Many perpetrators attempt to remain hidden by collecting a few thousand dollars for each scam, Capp said.
McKeesport’s Jason Belyeu, 27, and his wife Cheri McDonnell, 27, face multiple felony charges for claiming up to $2,500 per fabricated accident, Capp said.
Neither Belyeu’s attorney, Alonzo Burney of McKeesport, nor McDonnell’s attorney, Leo C. Harper Jr. of Uptown, could be reached for comment.
Their scheme, Capp said, worked like this: Every three weeks or so, between Sept. 19, 2005, and March 30, 2006, a woman would claim responsibility for hitting a parked, unoccupied car. Each time, Progressive, Nationwide or Safe Auto insurance companies sent a check to pay for damages to Belyeu, Capp said.
Belyeu persuaded a number of women to pretend they hit his car and admit fault, and he would pay them, Capp said.
The scheme raised suspicion when McDonnell bought a policy from Progressive using the name of a female tenant renting one of Belyeu’s properties. That woman called a Progressive agent after receiving some mail and requested an investigation, Capp said.
After hundreds of hours combing records, law enforcement officials arrested Belyeu in March, Capp said. He was charged with five counts of insurance fraud, five counts of conspiracy to commit fraud and three counts of identity theft, Capp said.
McDonnell faces more than 21 years in jail for three counts of insurance fraud, three counts of conspiracy to commit fraud and three counts of identity theft.
Belyeu faces more than 35 years in jail if convicted, Capp said.
They are scheduled to stand trial March 3 before Common Pleas Judge Randal Todd.
“We want to educate folks across Pennsylvania that this is something that happens in their communities,” Burnham said. “We want people to report it.”
Mike Cronin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7884.
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