If you have ever been in a car accident in San Antonio, you have probably gotten their phone calls. Fast-talking telemarketers pushing free medical services. In an undercover investigation, News 4 WOAI Trouble Shooter Jaie Avila reveals how they get your personal information and what they do with it.
By Jaie Avila
The term "ambulance chaser" used to describe lawyers who followed emergency crews to accident scenes hoping to sign up clients.
But these days it is against Texas law for attorneys to contact victims within 30 days of an accident.
"A few days later my cell phone started ringing off the wall, and it sounded like I'd won the lotto," says Dennis Neilson, an accident victim.
So now, telemarketers call accident victims like Dennis Neilson and leave enticing messages, like this one Neilson saved in his voice mail.
Phone message: "We want to let you know that you're more than welcome to come in for a wonderful massage therapy, physical therapy, doctor's attention, x-rays and so much more!"
And the other driver's insurance company will pay for it all, the caller goes on to say. Often, the messages say you're entitled to a cash settlement.
Even though Neilson's accident was just a fender bender, with no injuries, he received several calls.
What really outraged Neilson is that he has an unpublished number. The only way telemarketers could have gotten it was off the police report.
That's right, every morning a handful of people go down to the San Antonio Police Department and buy all of the traffic accident reports.
SAPD says state law forces them to sell the reports, which contain names, phone numbers and insurance information for both parties. Within minutes, the reports are in the hands of the telemarketers.
The Trouble Shooters wanted to know who was behind these phone calls. So we had a real accident victim, Larry Crist, return one of the calls.
"Do you work for the doctor's office?" asks Crist of a telemarketer.
Without ever asking if our victim is injured, the telemarketer makes an appointment for him at the San Antonio Pain Relief Center off Southwest Military Drive. We then take a hidden camera along to the medical appointment.
Before our victim ever sees a chiropractor, he is repeatedly asked if he wants to meet with a legal advisor.
"If you like, would you like someone to come down from the legal rep? I could call them, maybe you could speak to them first," a clinic staffer tells Larry.
Finally, we get in to see a chiropractor named Anh Pham. Our victim tells Pham he hasn't had any pain, other than a slight headache.
Now listen to the chiropractor's response:
ANH PHAM/CHIROPRACTOR: "Usually after a car accident, were you rear ended? or?
VICTIM: "It was broadside."
PHAM: "Which side?"
VICTIM: "Hit against the passenger side."
PHAM: "And you were pushed? Normally you would have neck pain, because of whip lash, side to side."
The chiropractor told us later he wasn't trying to influence the patient, he was just citing a common scenario.
Afterward, we're told he will order some x-rays, but only if we meet with a legal advisor.
LEGAL REP: "Hi, I'm Ron Fulton. Nice to meet you Larry..."
The legal advisor, who says his name is Ron Fulton, comes right to the clinic and ushers us back to a small office.
LEGAL REP: "If we can help you that would be great, if not I can answer whatever questions you have." The legal advisor tells us he works for San Antonio attorney Edgar Smith.
LEGAL REP: "Now insurance companies are hard to deal with, I'm going to tell you that right up front, they don't want to pay."
During our investigation we saw the same legal advisor at another clinic the telemarketers sent us to, the South Texas Med Clinic on Babcock Road.
Could his boss, attorney Edgar Smith, be the person orchestrating the whole operation?
We decided to ask him.
JAIE AVILA: "...wanted to ask you a question."
EDGAR SMITH/ATTORNEY: "I'm real busy right now."
JAIE AVILA: "Let me just show you something real quick."
EDGAR SMITH/ATTORNEY: "Okay."
Outside Smith's downtown office, I show him our video of the legal advisor we met at the clinic.
JAIE AVILA: "Now, you're a lawyer. Isn't it illegal to approach traffic accident victims?"
EDGAR SMITH/ATTORNEY: "Uh, that is illegal and I do not do that. And I have no further comment other than that."
AVILA: "This man was lying? He doesn't work for you?"
EDGAR SMITH/ATTORNEY: "Uh, I have no other comment, I just told you I don't do that, so you know, that's all I have to say."
When I spoke to Smith later on the phone, he said hadn't recognized the man in our video at the time, but admitted a man named Ron Fulton used to work for him, signing up clients.
But Smith says they aren't illegally soliciting clients, because his employee doesn't make the first contact with the victim. The telemarketer does that, then refers them to the clinic. The clinic then refers the victim to the attorneys. And that's perfectly legal.
But insurance companies say that is just a loophole that attorneys, chiropractors and body shops are using in many Texas cities.
"It all leads to a claim that may have been in the hundreds of dollars, is now in the tens of thousands of dollars," says Mark Hanna of the Insurance Council of Texas. Or injury claims that otherwise might not have been filed at all. "And what that leads to is higher auto insurance rates, and everyone of you are paying for that," adds Hanna.
Now, the insurance industry is supporting legislation that would prevent anyone from buying a traffic accident report from police for 60 days, except for the victims themselves, their insurance companies and the news media.
They hope that will stop the unwanted phone calls, and rising insurance premiums.
Edgar Smith told us even though the clinics he and other attorneys work with use telemarketers to cold call victims, those victims must give their approval before any attorney ever gets involved.
To let your lawmaker know what you think of the proposed legislation, click here.