Ganesh Sohan is built like a jockey, so thin, he's almost concave, with a shaved head and delicate features that belie the punishment his body has endured. Four years ago, he served in a U.S. Army infantry unit in Iraq, where he survived an IED attack on his Humvee unscathed.
Originally from Trinidad, the 22-year-old now earns his paychecks lifting boxes in a Target storeroom at Sawgrass Mills in Sunrise. "I'm used to my body being sore," he says. "I know what it feels like, my body being injured." His voice is soft and submissive, as if war had never been part of his vocabulary.
Last June 16, in the sweltering center of a summer afternoon, Sohan headed to the beach. His friend Bryan Rodriguez was in the passenger seat. Rodriguez, 23, is the more imposing of the two men. A Puerto Rican native with dreadlocks and tattoos on his hands, he's bounced around from a retail job to construction and washing cars.
Traffic stalled at the drawbridge just before the beach on East Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. Without warning, a Ford truck rammed into them from behind. Sohan jolted forward, one hand gripping the wheel, the other glued to the stick shift.
The truck driver offered Sohan and Rodriguez cash, but they called the police instead. When a Fort Lauderdale cop arrived, the truck driver admitted he hadn't stopped in time. He said his insurance would pay for the dents and scratches to Sohan's Mitsubishi.
Sohan and Rodriguez went to the beach, but Rodriguez's upper back hurt, and Sohan felt stiffness in his hands and back. By the next day, the ache in Sohan's back was so strong that he couldn't sleep. Rodriguez couldn't get out of bed.
The friends weren't well-versed in the intricacies of auto insurance, but they had seen the commercials that saturate TV and radio stations in South Florida. Actors posing as police officers implore viewers, "After 911, call 411!" and tell victims, "Let them explain to you the $10,000 of injury and lost wage benefits you may be entitled to."
Sohan assumed he could be eligible to receive $10,000 or "something like that." So the guys decided to give it a shot. "411-PAIN, I hear it all the time," Sohan says. He figured that a big company with a massive ad campaign must be legitimate. "If I see it on TV, it's somewhere I could trust to go to."Yet Sohan never received $10,000 like the ad touted. Instead, he unwittingly served as a pipeline, sending his insurance benefit money right into the pockets of chiropractors and lawyers from the 1-800-411-PAIN Referral Service. Before long, he ran up a $15,000 medical bill. Now, he and Rodriguez have filed a class-action lawsuit to help themselves and others who say they were tricked by 411-PAIN.
A model with sculpted biceps and milk-chocolate skin appears on the TV screen dressed in a navy-blue police uniform. Standing by an open car hood, he speaks with friendly authority.
"I arrive at all types of accidents — auto, motorcycle, slip-and-fall, and work injuries," he begins. "And I always tell everyone to call 411-PAIN. According to Florida Law, you may be entitled to a minimum of $10,000 in injury protection and lost wages, whether you're at fault or not.
"Remember, after 911, call 411."
The commercial's message is simple. It tempts viewers with $10,000 but never explains that the doctors and lawyers, not the patient, will get the money.
The ad has great appeal to people who are not familiar with insurance laws or not skeptical enough to ask many questions. Many of the company's ads are aimed at viewers like Sohan — those struggling to pay the bills, those who don't have a lawyer or doctor friend to call for advice.
People of all stripes are potential customers, but 411-PAIN makes no secret about courting black and Latino clients. On R&B and hip-hop stations such as Hot 105 and 96.5 FM, the company's pulsing jingle is inescapable: "Don't play no games/Stay in yo' lane/You touch my car, then I'm callin' 411-PAIN."
Other commercials flood Spanish-language television stations. One starts with a squealing car crash, then cuts to a woman in a neck brace, lying on a stretcher complaining, "No quiero estar esperando por horas en el hospital!" ("I don't want to be waiting for hours in the hospital!")
"Entónces, lláme 411-PAIN," the ambulance driver tells her.
Then there's the popular company spokesman, "Jorge," a lovable geek who lives in Miami, wears a fanny pack, and carries an ancient cordless phone.
A seemingly endless flow of cash funds all these marketing tools. In the past dozen years, the company has spent more than $13.2 million on advertising, according to court documents. More than 250,000 people "like" 411-PAIN's Facebook page. In October, the page held a Halloween costume contest asking fans to dress up like "Jorge" and win $1,000.