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Florida authorities says scammers collected insurance on same burned furniture

The ringleaders behind a $1.4 million insurance scam veered little from the script that worked the first time in 2007, authorities say.

To start, they found accomplices who rented big houses in South Miami-Dade, which they then filled with used furniture, clothing and other items from stores like Goodwill, authorities say. Then they took out renter’s insurance policies.

After a few months, these renters would “accidentally” leave a candle burning next to a fake plant or some other flammable item, sparking a fire that would burn the homes’ interior. Thenthey would file insurance claims for as much as $120,000.

In many cases, they would recycle the same burned furniture, lamps and even family pictures from one house to the next.

Authorities Wednesday arrested 20 people, including a public adjuster, in a conspiracy that they say was repeated a dozen times over five years.

“How emboldened could you get?” asked Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle. “They wouldn’t even get new furniture. They’d take the same furniture they just filed the claim on, rent another house and put the same furniture that’s already been destroyed into the next house. They didn’t try to hide it at all.”

According to authorities, the ringleaders were Gustavo Adrián Godínez Díaz, 30, and Alina Núñez, 51, a public adjuster. Both face charges including racketeering, conspiracy, organized fraud, arson, insurance fraud and grand theft. Other alleged participants included María Julia Ferrer, 23; Raúl J. Ferrer, 22; Beltis Cabrera, 22; Camilo Cabrera Ramos, 45, and Lizbeth de la Nuez, 41.

The “straw renters” arrested in the case were Yanet Sánchez Baldeiche, 39; Carlos A. Cabrera Castillo, 49; Daylin Espinosa, 29; Mercedes Ferrer, 49; Higinio A. García, 87; Teresa García, 48; Raúl Hernández, 47; Mailliwnia Jiménez, 29; Jorge L. Milanes, 46; Maribel Melendi Mora, 29; Ceilin Arencibia Pérez, 32; Mario Morales Pérez, 42, and Eduardo Rodríguez Rodríguez, 33.

Operation Candlelight was a cooperative investigation of the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, the Miami-Dade Police Department’s Economic Crimes and Arson Division and the Florida Division of the Fire Marshal. Fernández Rundle said about 40 percent of the fraud in Florida is committed in Miami-Dade.

Jeff Atwater, the state’s chief financial officer and fire marshal, came to Miami for Wednesday’s press conference. He said all property owners are victims when scammers defraud the insurance industry. “Everybody who will write a check for their property insurance, their rates will go up when this behavior is not dealt with aggressively,” he said. “How long do these cheats and thieves go on thinking that the only victim is a big insurance company?”