FARGO — Seven people in Fargo are accused of running a car insurance fraud ring where they crashed into each other's vehicles and collected insurance money for profit.

Cass County prosecutors filed last week felony charges of conspiracy to commit a fraudulent insurance act and illegally conducting an enterprise against Fargo residents Connor Del Marum, Jamal Dantrell Neita, Zachary Scott Norquist, Tarron Lashon Spragging, Emmanuel Essam, Elijah Darne Stone and Steven Stone. Neita appeared in court on the charges Monday, April 19, and arrest warrants are out for the remaining defendants.

The North Dakota Insurance Fraud Division started investigating the group in June after receiving an online referral from Geico Insurance. The company said Steven Stone bought a liability-only policy for a van he did not own but claimed he backed into Neita’s parked vehicle, according to a criminal complaint.

The van had been parked for two years, and Geico agents theorized Steven Stone saw the van, wrote down the VIN and purchased an insurance policy for the vehicle, the complaint said. Geico had four claims on file involving the van.

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Those four claims connected Steven Stone to Marum, Essam, Spragging and Neita, the complaint said. Further investigation revealed 15 claims that had a common pattern: the defendants bought a vehicle and were involved in a reported collision a few days later, with most crashes involving another defendant, the complaint said.

The insurance claimants said they were distracted when they hit a vehicle, but some of the claims involved a vehicle they did not own, were operating or even possessed at the time of the crash, according to court documents.

Insurance agents from various companies said the damage done to the vehicles did not correlate with the description of what happened, the complaint said.

The claims totaled more than $67,000 and happened between Sept. 4, 2018, and May 27, 2020.

Fraud investigator Joe Pittman has been with the North Dakota Insurance Department for 10 years. He said that staged accident rings will buy a vehicle for a low price, wait for an opportunity to crash it, report it to an insurance company and collect the check, he said. They then sell the vehicle and buy another.

Some may add damage to the vehicle, and sometimes they wait for other drivers to change lanes before hitting them, he said.

Insurance fraud is the second most profitable crime, behind illegal drug sales, and the most committed crime, Pittman said. It costs U.S. consumers $80 to 120 billion each year, according to the North Dakota Insurance Department.

Insurance premiums go into a pool for claim payouts.

“North Dakota consumers are being victimized,” he said. “When someone scams the insurance company, it’s our premiums that they’re taking.

Most of the cases Pittman’s office handles are small compared to the one in Fargo, though his agency processes about 300 each year. In 2020, North Dakotans lost $523,000 to fraud cases and another $1.1 million in 2019, he said.