Eleven people have been arrested in connection with an insurance fraud scheme allegedly involving University Collision Centers of Philadelphia. A Philadelphia police officer, a personal injury lawyer, seven auto damage appraisers and the owner and the manager of a Philadelphia collision repair shop have been charged in an insurance fraud scheme prosecutors say netted them millions over four years, according to reports made by Joseph A. Slobodzian, of ther Philadelphia Inquirer and
Prosecutors are alleging a forklift was modified by attaching one of three types of car bumpers to the tongues to create a variety of scrapes, dents and tears on automobiles. City prosecutors allege that University Collision workers would then report the damages to insurance companies for inflated payouts.
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams and Deputy Police Commissioner Richard Ross announced the filing of felony charges against 11 people, who allegedly worked together to file numerous fraudulent insurance claims, at a Center City news conference.
The charges are the result of a lengthy undercover probe by the DA's Insurance Fraud Unit (IFU) with assistance from Nationwide Insurance Co., GEICO Insurance Co. and the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
"This is not a victimless crime," Williams said. "All Philadelphia consumers are affected."
Among the 11 charged as a result of the 13-month undercover investigation of University Collision Centers by the DA's Insurance Fraud Unit were:
- Philadelphia police officer Gary Cottrell, 44, a 15-year veteran of the force assigned to the 14th District in Germantown and Chestnut Hill. Cottrell allegedly was a "wreck chaser" who traveled throughout the city in uniform to direct accident victims to University Collision. A spokeswoman for the police noted that Cottrell had been suspended for 30 days with intent to dismiss. Cottrell faces a maximum of 152 years incarceration. Deputy Police Commissioner Richard Ross said corrupt officers are a minority of the 6,000-member department: “It’s very sad that all the other men and women on the force have to deal with this.”
- Michael Wolf, 52, of Phoenixville, Chester County, a lawyer with a Philadelphia practice. Wolf allegedly advised University Collision's owner in the fraud and also filed several phony personal injury claims with them. Wolf is a lawyer who has been licensed in Pennsylvania since 1988, and works at the firm of Kotsopoulos & Wolf P.C. They have offices in King of Prussia and Cherry Hill. He allegedly faces 103 years in prison.
- Edward Hildebrandt, 41, of Philadelphia, owner of University Collision, with operations in Gray's Ferry and Manayunk.
- David Coleman, 41, of Chadds Ford, Chester County, identified as manager of University Collision.
The seven vehicle damage appraisers included four from Philadelphia: Arthur Juliano, Addaie Amankwaaw, Cheryl Stanton, and Steve Wilkinson. The others were from South Jersey: Dave Robertson and John Howell, both of Cherry Hill, and Richard Reilly of Mullica Hill,Vicki Markovitz, an Assistant District Attorney, noted that the damage appraisers were independent and reviewed claims for most major insurance companies.
All the defendants ware charged with corrupt organization, dealing with unlawful proceeds, insurance fraud, theft, and conspiracy. Except for Wolf and Coleman, all were also charged with bribery.
Williams said his office was contacted in February 2010 by State Farm Insurance Co. about the operations at University Collision Centers.
The undercover investigation showed that the collision centers were "enhancing and creating damage" to vehicles brought to them for repair to justify inflated insurance claims, Williams said.
The University Collision operation worked with the appraisers, who allegedly inflated damage appraisals in exchange for cash kickbacks, Williams said.
University Collision Center remains open, with Augenbraun saying that it would likely continue in business during the prosecution and the trial in order to maintain some assets for victim restitution. He also said the company is being monitored, and that the forklift and other devices were seized by police.
The insurance fraud unit is said to have launched an undercover investigation which the help of a decoy car provided by Nationwide Insurance and National Insurance Crime Bureau, and a decoy insurance policy provided by GEICO.
Assistant District Attorney David Augenbraun, of the Insurance Fraud Unit, said Cottrell allegedly pocketed 20-percent cash kickbacks for each customer he directed to University Collision and also filed false damage claims for some of his own cars. Although investigators are still working to estimate the amount of the operations illegal proceeds, Augenbraun said some of the kickbacks paid were as high as $1,000.
Augenbraun noted that forthcoming arrests are likely, and will probably include customers who knowingly allowed false claims to be filed. “The customers may not feel like victims,” Augenbraun said, “but if they are caught, they will be in very substantial trouble.”