University Collision Centers: Chop shop scammers busted

A city police officer, personal-injury lawyer and nine others were charged yesterday in connection with a longstanding insurance-fraud plot in which vehicles involved in collisions were steered toward a specific body shop where the cars would be further damaged so inflated damage claims could be filed.

In some cases, a forklift was fashioned to hold various car bumpers to damage vehicles involved in fender benders. The alleged fraud perpetuated at University Collision Centers in Grays Ferry and Manayunk will “likely go into the millions” with further arrests possible, authorities said.

Last February, an unidentified UCC employee told law enforcement about co-workers “enhancing and creating damage … to inflate the value of insurance claims.” An undercover officer used a decoy car, provided by Nationwide Insurance Company, to catch the suspects in the act.

Officer Gary Cottrell, a 15-year veteran from 14th District, allegedly acted as “a wreck chaser both on and off duty,” often being the first on the scene to steer owners to UCC, from whom he got a 20 percent kickback. Cottrell, who was arrested at home yesterday morning, sent “more than three dozen” vehicles, often accompanying them to the lot.

“It was a crime of opportunity,” said David Augenbraun, chief of the district attorney’s insurance fraud unit. Discussing the forklift, he added, “they had previously been using a van but became worried about paint transfers and damage looking the same.”

Additional details

» Cottrell, who is additionally charged with filing fraudulent claims for “fabricated damage to his own vehicles,” faces 152 years in prison and a $262,000 fine on six separate felonies.

» Attorney Michael Wolf, charged with advising UCC owner Edward Hildebrandt with regards to the fraud scheme, is also alleged to have helped a UCC employee who fell in front of work file a slip-and-fall case against an unrelated business on Main Street in Manayunk. Others charged include Hildebrandt, seven vehicle-damage appraisers and UCC’s manager.

» Asked about another officer getting arrested, Deputy Police Commissioner Richard Ross said the 6,000-plus officers who do their jobs properly “now have to hear yet another story about a comrade who chose to go down the wrong road. I hope they don’t get discouraged, but it is a necessary evil to police ourselves.”

» All 11 are charged with: corrupt organization; dealing in proceeds from an unlawful act; insurance fraud; theft by deception; and conspiracy.

» Everyone but Wolf and University Collision manager David Coleman faces an additional misdemeanor charge of commercial bribery.

» Cottrell is charged with felony bribery.

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