Businessman talking on his cell phone by a car accident © Stewart Cohen, Blend Images, Getty Images

I admit it: I wasn't paying enough attention.

We were stopped at a light, waiting to turn right. The car in front of me started rolling, then abruptly slammed on the brakes. I plowed right into it.

My first thought was along the lines of "Oh, crap." The second was, "How much will my insurance premiums go up because of this?"

What I should have thought was, "Was this accident staged?"

Los Angeles, where I live, is a hot spot for this type of fraud. So are Florida, Michigan, Texas and New York, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which said questionable car accident claims have more than doubled since 2008.

In Nevada, fraudsters are targeting big rigs in the Las Vegas area, the NCIB says, with as many as 100 suspected staged accidents in recent months.

These crimes are far from victimless. A couple and their 2-year-old daughter died in Los Angeles several years ago after their station wagon was smashed between two big rigs in a fiery crash. Two men were sentenced to 11 years in prison each after pleading guilty to deliberately staging the accident, which started when the Mercury Cougar one defendant was driving slammed on its brakes in front of one of the trucks.

The bad guys typically target vehicles that appear well-insured, such as big rigs or new-model and luxury cars. Some investigators say the crime rings look for vehicles driven by women and the elderly, who are seen as less likely to stage angry confrontations.

Image: Liz Weston

Liz Weston

The methods they use aren't all that sophisticated. According to the Insurance Information Institute, some of them include:

  • The swoop and squat. The "swoop" car cuts off the vehicle in front of you, which "squats" or slams on the brakes.
  • The panic stop. A passenger in the car ahead of you watches you, waiting for you to be distracted (by your phone, your kids, your drive-through meal) and then telling the driver to hit the brakes.
  • The side swipe. This maneuver typically takes place where there are two turn lanes, with the victim in the inside lane. The other driver goes wide or appears to be going straight, waiting for you to drift into his lane so he can smack into you.
  • The drive down. The neighborly seeming driver waves you in, or motions for you to proceed, then speeds up to hit you.

The cars triggering the crashes are often filled with people, the better to inflate medical claims. After even minor crashes, the occupants will claim soft-tissue damage and other problems.

The car I hit was full, but the occupants were texting teenagers who barely looked up from their devices when I asked if they were OK. "We're fine," they chorused. Insurance investigators say criminals rarely use kids, although they sometimes recruit unwitting passengers from day labor hangouts.

Another signal this wasn't a staged accident: The other driver's car was nicer than mine. It wasn't the kind of disposable beater often used in these crimes.

Also, we had been stopped at the intersection, which limited how much harm could be done. My bumper hit her trailer hitch, which trashed my license plate and nicked the hitch, with no other visible damage. The bad guys prefer crashes at higher speeds: on freeways or between intersections.

In the end, I got lucky. The other driver didn't even file a claim. But I got a pretty good wake-up call about the importance of defensive driving, which can go a long way in preventing an accident, staged or otherwise. That means:

  • Don't tailgate. Leave plenty of space between you and the car ahead of you so you have enough time to react. Guy in front deliberately slowing down to annoy you? Get Zen or change lanes.
  • Dial down the distractions. Put away the phone, don't eat in the car, pull over to deal with your kids.
  • Watch your turn radius. Many of us drift wide while turning, so make the effort to stay in your lane.
  • Beware of friendly strangers. If another driver is motioning you to merge in, turn left in front of him or otherwise enter his lane, consider waving him on or at least go slowly so you have time to react if his motives aren't pure.

After any accident, you should record a bunch of information. Use your cellphone camera to shoot pictures of the vehicles and any damage. You can record driver's licenses and insurance card information the same way. Get the names and phone numbers of the other drivers and all passengers, as well as names and contact information of any witnesses. If police or emergency personnel appear, get their names and badge numbers.

If you suspect fraud, trust your gut. Call the cops and get a police report, even if the damage is minor, since that will make it harder for the other driver to inflate the claim. Tell your insurer about the incident and why you think it might be questionable. You also can call the NICB's toll-free hotline at 1-800-TEL-NICB (1-800-835-6422) to report the incident; your call can be anonymous if you want. Stopping this fraud won't just save insurers some money. You could be saving a life.

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Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.