With a computer and a printer, creating authentic-looking auto insurance cards can take just a few minutes. Across the country, crooks are cranking out these fake proof-of-insurance cards like they're candy.
Buying a phony auto insurance card may seem sweet -- you avoid paying for auto insurance but trick authorities into thinking you have coverage. Yet the whole deal may turn sour if you get into a car crash and wind up paying a high price for not having one shred of auto insurance coverage.
“With the state of the economy, it may be tempting for some people to buy fake auto insurance cards and defraud the insurance industry,” says Loretta Worters, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute.
Worters and other insurance experts warn drivers to resist that temptation.
The risks of buying a fake auto insurance card include:
Getting arrested. In states such as New York, if you're pulled over while driving and are carrying a fake insurance card, you could be handcuffed on the spot.
Getting a ticket. In Texas, when a police officer pulls over a motorist, anyone found carrying a false insurance card may be slapped with a ticket.
Getting sent to jail. Using a fake insurance card in states such as West Virginia is a felony that carries a possible sentence of one to 10 years behind bars.
Getting into an accident without insurance. If you get into an auto accident and have a fake insurance card, you aren't actually protected by auto insurance. If you bought the policy in good faith, there’s a chance the insurance company may side with you, says James Quiggle, a spokesman for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud. To clear your name, however, you’ll still have to go through drawn-out procedures with the folks involved in the accident. It could take months to restore your good name.
If you bought an auto insurance policy and received a proof-of-insurance card in good faith, but now suspect that the card isn't legitimate, here are the steps to take:
Study the card. A fake card may have different shades of print on it, says Chris Bailes, director of investigations for the West Virginia Insurance Commission. Authentic cards should have consistent ink coloring, while fake cards that have been photocopied may have both dark and light shades of ink.
Contact your insurance company. If you bought a policy from an agent and now have reason to suspect fraud, follow up with your company directly (not the agent).
Contact your state insurance department. If you find out you have a phony insurance card, call your state insurance department and report your case. If one consumer has been scammed, there likely are other victims, Quiggle says.
Here's a brief overview of those most often involved in the business of producing fake insurance cards:
Criminals. In 2007, a couple in New Jersey was sent to prison for producing and selling phony car insurance cards. Charlotte Murphy was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for her role in the scheme; her husband, Dan "Larry" Murphy, was sentenced to three years in prison. Both of them had pleaded guilty.
At the time, New Jersey authorities said phony insurance cards could sell on the street for anywhere from $50 to more than $200 each.
Consumers trying to cut costs. When you purchase a legitimate insurance policy, you receive a card to prove that you’re insured. As required by law in most states, this card must be kept in your car at all times and must be presented when registering your vehicle. Consumers trying to save money may sidestep the policy and buy a fake card -- typically for less than the insurance coverage would cost -- or even make a phony card on their own.
In 2010, Porchia Davis of Pulaski County, Ark., bought a fake insurance card for $50, authorities say. She bought it from Tashanna Davis (who produced the card on her computer at the Arkansas Department of Human Services), then used it to register her vehicle with the state Department of Motor Vehicles.The two women were given probation. They were among nine people accused following an investigation into the production, purchase and sale of counterfeit proof-of-insurance cards.
Immigrants. Quiggle says fake insurance cards often circulate in immigrant communities, where residents may not be able to afford insurance or to get a policy through legal channels.
Agents trying to make extra money. An insurance broker or agent may write legitimate policies as well as phony ones, says Frank Scafidi, a spokesman for the nonprofit National Insurance Crime Bureau. Because these people have access to equipment that generates authentic policies, they may make and sell phony policies and insurance cards.
Website scams. A quick Google search for fake insurance cards yields plenty of results for websites that offer fake auto insurance cards. The prices may be appealing, but these online bargains lack one critical item: a real insurance policy.
Innocent victims. People may buy a fake policy -- and an accompanying phony insurance card -- that they think comes from a legitimate insurance broker. If there's no reason for concern, the driver may not realize this until an accident happens. People tend to discover they don’t have insurance when they've been in an accident and learn – to their horror – that there's absolutely no insurance coverage at all, Quiggle says.