phantom accident
n. A faked automobile collision, the purpose of which is to defraud an insurance company.

Example Citation:
"Ten people were indicted Oct. 14 on charges of participating in a 'phantom' accident ring that defrauded insurers of at least $ 33,000....

According to the four indictments, the scheme involved members of the ring making bodily injury and property damage claims for 'accidents' that never occurred. Specifically, in many of the instances, one member of the group would call an insurer and claim that he or she ran a stop sign and collided with a car allegedly driven by another ring member. Later, the other ring member would call the insurer to make the same claim and a damaged car would be presented for appraisal."
—"10 Indicted In Illinois For 'Phantom' Accident Scheme," Mealey's Litigation Report, October, 1999

Earliest Citation:
Law Department officials said many of the accidents either did not happen, or occurred only once, but the defendants created 'phantom accidents' and filed false reports to collect insurance money.
—Hank Ernest Jr., "15 B'klyn Residents Indicted in Scam," Newsday, July 19, 1990

Phantom accidents come in three flavors:
  • A staged "accident," where one car purposely hits another car or object.

  • Existing damage presented as evidence of an accident that never occurred.

  • Existing damage from a real or staged accident presented as evidence in multiple insurance claims.

I began researching this phrase when I came across the following passage in a recent issue of The New Yorker:

"Drivers are now accustomed to the phenomenon of the phantom accident: three lanes of tightly packed cars inch forward for miles, and then, suddenly, everyone is going sixty again, with no visible sign of what caused the delay. They are experiencing the 'memory' of an ancient fender bender."
—Louis Menand, "Alone Together," The New Yorker, July 2, 2001

We've all been there, with our necks in an appropriately rubbery state but with nowhere to look. Phantom accident is the perfect phrase for this but, alas, it appears to be a coinage of Mr. Menand's. Well, if you tell two friends, and they tell two friends...

Related Words: