10 charged for suspected roles in auto insurance fraud ring

SAN DIEGO — Prosecutors Friday announced charges against 10 alleged members of a San Diego auto insurance fraud ring, who are accused of buying damaged vehicles and staging car thefts in order to collect more than $500,000 in fraudulent claims.

The defendants — four were arrested this week, while a half-dozen others remain at large — are accused of buying already-damaged vehicles with high mileage, then submitting false damage or theft claims, defrauding a dozen insurance companies in the process, according to prosecutors and the California Department of Insurance.

Investigators allege the suspects filed about three dozen false claims over the course of four years, with 56 vehicles used in the alleged scheme. Some of the vehicles’ odometers were rolled back to increase their value before being damaged or reported stolen, according to prosecutors, who allege the defendants also damaged some of the vehicles themselves after insuring them.

A tip to the District Attorney’s Office sparked the investigation — dubbed Operation Dealer’s Choice — that led to the arrests of four of the alleged ring’s members on Thursday.

Michael Cusi, 32, of San Diego, Mylipsa Santos, 23, of San Diego, and Daniel Santos, 24, of San Diego, pleaded not guilty Friday afternoon at the downtown San Diego courthouse.

Deputy District Attorney Luis Mendez said those three defendants accounted for $320,000 of the total losses.

The fourth arrested defendant, Jessica Herrera, 36, of Imperial Beach, posted bail just before Friday’s hearing and is due for arraignment Dec. 12.

Charges have also been filed against the six defendants who remain at large: Luis Cardona, Jr., 26, of National City; Francisco Javier Rodriguez, 33, of Chula Vista; Jesus Herrera, 34, of Spring Valley; Betsy Guadalupe Matteoti, 35, of San Diego; Ramon De Jesus Hernandez, 56, of San Diego; and Felipe Cardona Villareal, 25, of Tampa, Florida.

“The alleged scam we uncovered in Operation Dealer’s Choice was a bad deal for drivers who have to pay more through higher premiums as a result of insurance fraud,” said state Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara.

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