Arsonist to insurers: Check fire claims more closely

arson_10-16_mobile_homeKenny Allen was a likable fellow. He went to church, coached youth basketball in the Muncie, Ind. area, and was making his way through life with limitless potential ahead.

He also lived in a secret world: He was an insurance thief. Kenny was a driving force behind the largest home arson ring in Indiana history. And one of the largest ever in the U.S. His gang helped torch at least 73 buildings while he sang hymns of righteousness in pews.

Insurers were easy to defraud, Allen says. Their adjusters were so intent on making customers happy — he contends — that they rarely asked tough questions. Insurers could’ve quickly exposed the claims for burned homes as money grabs with a little more effort.

Kenny went straight after nearly five years in federal prison. He admits he screwed up, and today gives workshops for investigators to help make amends. He partners with Mike Vergon, the former ATF agent who arrested him. They’re friends and supporters in life — a touching story of Kenny’s redemption.

Yet his saga speaks to a bigger dilemma for insurers. If they investigate too many claims too closely, they risk policyholders thinking they’re cold and money-grubbing.

If insurers let too many suspect claims slide through too easily, they risk being prey for hunters like Kenny was. This slippery slope can grow fraud losses, help raise premiums and — yes — reinforce a belief among many consumers that insurers are cold and money-grubbing.

Life isn’t always fair when you’re an insurance company, no matter how many good deeds you perform. Corporations are targets of consumer upset simply because they’re big and make money.

Checking closely into suspicious claims can trigger a lot of emotions. Fair or not, people’s feelings of aggrievement or entitlement can quickly damage an insurer’s reputation. Especially when viral social posts can reach millions of sympathetic consumers in just hours.

Over the longterm, it’s a risk worth taking, and a story worth telling.
Insurers should do a far better job of telling people why they fight fraud — and why all policyholders benefit.

Being justifiably known for protecting policyholders from thieves seems like a pretty good way to build a business brand. And doing right by consumers.

If Kenny Allen’s right, taking the easy way out could’ve cost insurers more than millions in false arson claims. He’s the first to admit, it’s a miracle nobody died in his fires.

About the author: Jim Quiggle is director of communications for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud.

 

Fraud prosecutors in N.J. lose tool against defendants

nj_pre-trial_detention_mobile_homePrisons and jails across the U.S. are overcrowded, costly and at a breaking point in many states. Jurisdictions are working to ease the pressure in a variety of ways. California, for example, has released more than 30,000 inmates early in the last five years. Other states use alternative sentencing.

New Jersey is taking a different approach. It has done away with pre-trial detention except for the most-violent crimes or people who are flight risks.

Fraud prosecutors in the Garden State say the new law makes their jobs tougher. A runner employed by a staged-crash ring who gets caught no longer has to worry about making bail. The threat of pre-trial detention often spurs a runner to cooperate with law enforcement and help nail the gang’s masterminds. But no longer.

Now, runners are  processed and given a summons, kind of like getting a traffic ticket.

The concern here is that the lack of pre-trial detention throws up one more roadblock for many local prosecutors who already are overworked and hesitant to take complex, time-consuming fraud cases.

There are no easy answers. It’s unlikely lawmakers will make an exception to the law for non-violent, white-collar crimes.

Deterring fraud rings is difficult, though achievable. The anti-fraud advertising campaign by the Office of Insurance Fraud Prosecutor and state AG is excellent, though it’s oriented towards everyday consumers, not organized criminals. Perhaps outreach to lower-level gang members about the dangers of committing fraud might help deter.

The best approach might be for insurers to focus even more on taking the profit out of insurance crime. Greater use of technology will detect scams earlier before claims money goes out the door. More civil suits with treble damages against crooked medical providers and other ringleaders will hurt them where it counts.

Fraud fighters around the U.S. will have to rely less on arrests and prosecutions. They still can curb insurance fraud by improvising and relying more on their creative expertise.

About the author: Dennis Jay is executive director of the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud.

Selling interstate invites scams

health_interstate_mobile_homeI grew up in the Northeast, and now live in a Mid-Atlantic state. I understand Fall. The weather is crisp and the leaves turn colors. Happens every year.

Just like the leaves turning colors in the Fall, someone predictably come up with a supposedly great idea: let consumers buy health coverage from insurers across state lines.

The argument is always the same: Interstate sales increases competition and reduces costs for consumers. This sounds workable on paper. The latest go-around was raised in this past week’s presidential debate as the fall leaves tumbled — just like consumer protections.

Problem is, interstate sales open the door wide for fraud, and water down consumer protection. And, most people advocating this system usually don’t include important and necessary protections when pushing their interstate plans.

Yes, neighboring states can legally create partnerships that allow insurers to cover consumers in any state within the partnership. Yet partnerships have strict, built-in legal protections when states agree to work together. Insurance regulators know who’s doing business. Networks also offer consumers choices of doctors and facilities.

These protections and coverages may not exist under a blanket permit for consumers to buy coverage in any state.

Consumers don’t know what insurance regulator to reach for help. And would the regulator in the state where the consumer lives have much incentive to help if the health insurer is domiciled another state? Would the regulator where the insurer is domiciled help a consumer living in a different state?

We already see crooks peddling bogus health insurance to unsuspecting consumers and small businesses. This problem would be magnified if interstate sale of health insurance was allowed without strict and well-defined oversight. 

Insurers must be state-licensed to do business in a given state. How can state oversight properly protect consumers if anyone can offer insurance to any consumer in any other state?

Who makes certain the insurer is solvent and can do business in another state? And, would an insurer in one state have an adequate network of doctors, hospitals and pharmacies to cover the health needs of consumers in another state?

These questions are raised every time interstate health-insurance sale is broached. Yet we never hear answers — just the simplistic nostrum that interstate sales will help reduce healthcare costs.

Don’t just spoon out more words like falling autumn leaves — prove that consumers would be better protected.

About the author: Howard Goldblatt is director of government affairs for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud.