One evening last month, as custodian Tracy Martin took in a Detroit Pistons game at the Palace of Auburn Hills, her cell phone rang. “They’re towing your car,” her husband, who is paralyzed, told her. Later, when Martin arrived home, she found a flyer left behind by the Highland Park Police, which along with the police departments of neighboring Ecorse and Hamtramck, belonged to the COBRA Multijurisdictional Auto Theft Task Force.
The leaflet, placed where her 2000 Ford truck had been parked, explained that Martin’s vehicle had been towed as a result of auto insurance fraud; it also listed a number for her to call.
“They said I couldn’t get my vehicle back, I have to wait to get it at auction,” Martin said, recounting that first conversation. “Then I talked to someone else who gave me an appointment to talk to a detective, but [he said] my best bet was to be ready to buy it back at auction.”
A task force representative told Martin her vehicle was towed after an insurance company reported her fraudulent policy to the Michigan Secretary of State, which checks proof of insurance when it issues license plates. The Secretary of State, in turn, was required to contact the police after it was notified of the fraud. So Martin called the Secretary of State’s office, and spoke with someone who told her the office “doesn’t tow vehicles for insurance fraud.”
With no apparent recourse to retrieve her car, Martin has resigned herself to buying it back at auction. Authorities have not given her an auction date.
“I called Progressive,” she said, “and they’re like, it’s a whole lot of you all in Detroit. There are many victims there.”
Martin was taken in by a widening scam in which crooks, posing as auto insurance agents, prey on working people struggling to find affordable policies. Under the scam, the perpetrator offers auto insurance for a low price — low because the scammer, posing as a broker, will buy an authentic policy using fraudulent means of payment, keeping the policy just long enough to collect a proof of insurance card.
The racket is a growing problem in New York City and South Florida, according to an insurance industry group, but seems most prevalent in Michigan, where premiums are inflated by a state mandate that drivers purchase insurance plans that have unlimited lifetime medical benefits, among other features. Victims in Michigan are thrown even deeper into crisis when police, as is common there, accuse victims of being in on the scam and seize their vehicles and other assets under civil forfeiture laws.
The scam and seizures show how crooks and cops can end up working in concert to further imperil those already on the economic brink. Indeed, in this case, low-income residents are pinched at every turn. They start off with especially high insurance premiums, consumer advocates argue, because insurance companies sometimes charge people in low-income communities more for auto insurance in a practice some have labeled modern redlining.
Bogus agents exploit the need for cheaper policies by selling insurance that’s too good to be true, leaving victims financially exposed, for example, in the case of an accident. As if all that weren’t enough, the police then turn on the victims of the fraud, who are far easier to track down than the original perpetrators.
“You have a blend of crooked agents selling innocent, squeezed drivers bogus policies and insurance cards, and high insurance premiums,” said James Quiggle of the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, a group that receives funding from insurance companies.
Anatomy of a scam
Progressive Insurance outlined the scam in a written statement, expanding on what the company told Martin: “In many of these cases, fraudsters act as sham insurance agents and set up real insurance policies for unsuspecting consumers but with invalid forms of payment that cause the policies to be cancelled for non-payment. It can be very hard for companies to detect this type of fraud because the down payment and the policy information appear to be valid. The bogus seller then walks away with money in their pocket and the consumer is left hanging.”
The consumers left hanging are often working class people such as Martin, whose “agent” was a man who called himself Johnathan Brown. The number Johnathan Brown provided to Martin is now disconnected.
Brown approached Martin on the auto lot the day she bought her truck two years ago with the promise of cheaper-than-usual insurance.
According to Martin, Brown claimed he worked for a local agency called LA Insurance, which carried Progressive Insurance. LA Insurance told me they never employed anyone by the name of Johnathan Brown. Whomever Brown was, he was a smart crook, taking, Martin says, $1,100 in what she thought were insurance payments destined for Progressive.
Worse, Michigan authorities are attempting to rob her all over again by forcing her to repurchase her own vehicle at a police auction. Police have not been able to locate Brown.
Highland Park Police Chief Kevin Coney placed the blame squarely on Martin. “She is contacting all these [media] people, but it’s something that she did wrong,” he said. I asked Coney why he was so certain of Martin’s guilt. “She had to know,” he answered. “It’s about 5,000 people out here we’re going after. Why would we just pick her?” But then he admitted, “I don’t know all the facts.”
Martin is furious with the police response. “I have all my paperwork from Progressive”, she said, “and from the state, and I paid my bill. I don’t deserve this.”
It’s true that auto insurance fraud is a major problem in Michigan. Nearly 20 percent of the auto insurance certificates in Wayne County, Michigan, home to Detroit, are obtained fraudulently, prosecutors estimated. Earlier this year, as part of a growing crackdown, Eaton County, Michigan prosecutors charged Hakeem Olaynika Sanusi with six felony crimes related to insurance fraud. The 64-year-old Detroiter pleaded no contest to a host of charges, which included: “racketeering, issuing bad checks, identity theft and possession or sale of stolen or counterfeit insurance certificates.”
Sanusi is currently serving 12 months in Eaton County jail.
Robbed twice: First by criminals, then by cops
The forfeiture of Martin’s truck would hardly be worth noting if not for the widespread practice, on the part of Michigan authorities, of seizing the vehicles and other assets of innocent Michiganders. The Institute for Justice ranks Michigan among the worst states in the union when it comes to the controversial practice, known as civil forfeiture, which is ripe for abuse by state law enforcement agencies.
Police frequently pressure victims of insurance fraud to “admit” they were a party to the fraud — which would be a felony offense. Detroit resident Tracey Rodriguez claimed this happened to her; she said COBRA seized her car and attempted to coerce a confession of insurance fraud out of her.
She resisted, but under pressure “signed a settlement waiving her rights and paid $345 to the task force and $445 to get her car from B&G Towing in Detroit,” according to Fox 2 News. Rodriguez claimed she had little choice with four children who needed to get back and forth to school.
Michigan’s aggressive use of civil forfeiture laws goes well beyond the tales of Martin and Rodriguez. Between 2001 and 2008, according to state documents, Michigan seized more than $149 million in property and cash. In 2013 alone, police agencies reported $24.3 million in asset forfeitures. Some agencies, however, refused to submit figures, meaning the amount could be even higher.
One 2008 incident perfectly demonstrated how Michigan authorities both abuse forfeiture laws and terrorize innocent people.
In May 2008, during a party at Detroit’s Contemporary Art Institute, police seized the vehicles of 44 patrons because the museum hadn’t acquired a license to serve liquor after 2 a.m. The police claimed they believed the patrons to be complicit. The ACLU described a harrowing scene where police, dressed completely in black and armed with high-powered weaponry, stormed the museum and forced terrified partygoers to the ground.
After the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit against the police over the incident, Detroit dropped the charges against the revelers, though many victims were still forced to pay nearly $900 to retrieve their seized vehicles.
In 2012, a federal judge declared the museum raid and seizures unconstitutional because revelers were unaware the museum lacked the proper alcohol permit. Earlier this year, the city settled with the remaining “CAID Raid” victims for $175,000.
Forfeiture is common in Michigan in part because it’s so easy for the police to seize assets and property; state laws do not require a court hearing for seized assets worth less than $50,000. And in many cases, despite no charges being filed, the property is not returned.
“They take your shit and then ask questions later,” said Charmie Gholson, a local activist with Michigan Moms United, a group working to reform the state’s civil assets forfeiture laws.
“A lot of these southeast Michigan cities have become more clever when it comes to fleecing people.”
Correction: February 2, 2016
Three corrections have been made to an earlier version of this piece. Tracy Martin’s Ford truck was made in 2000, not 2004. She said she paid LA Insurance $1,100, not $2,000. The name of the COBRA Multijurisdictional Auto Theft Task Force, which was incorrectly cited as the COBRA Multijurisdictional Auto Task Force, has been updated. We regret the errors.
After uncovering misattributed quotes in stories written by Juan Thompson, a former staff reporter, The Intercept conducted a review of his work. We did not confirm the statement from Progressive or the information attributed to LA Insurance. All other quotes were verified.
Photos by Salwan Georges for The Intercept