Public Outreach Update

Firefighters Larry Leggio and John Mesh were hosing gallons of water into a burning nail salon when a wall collapsed. Hot bricks rained down on them in an alley in Kansas City, Mo. Leggio and Mesh died immediately. The salon owner Thu Hong Nguyen was handed life in prison after torching the place for an insurance score.

Nguyen was one of America’s nine worst insurance schemers the Coalition dishonored with election to the Insurance Fraud Hall of Shame last year.

Posting the year’s top insurance criminals humanizes this $80-billion financial crime. Many consumers have a hard time realizing that fraud damages everyone. And that insurance crime can victimize innocent people, in often-chilling ways.

Naming the Shamers helps bridge this gap. Listing the year’s worst convicted fraudsters can earn a lot of social-media chatter, news coverage and website visits that improve consumer understanding of insurance crimes.

New York taps own shamers

New York insurers landed hard on bottom-feeding Fraudzillas in the Empire State. The Insurance Fraud Legion of Shame exposed a year’s worth of moral bankruptcy as well. The nine criminals ranged from stumbling knuckleheads to cunning leaders of ruthless crime rings. You’re unlikely to invite fraudsters such as these to the family dinner table:

Michael Danilovich masterminded a massive fraud ring that stole $279 million in false injury claims from bogus and setup car wrecks in New York City. It was one of the largest such crimes in U.S. history.

Yury Baumblit ran grimy flophouses that housed homeless people and addicts in the New York City area. He pushed many residents into unneeded drug rehab, forced some to take drugs, and evicted anyone who didn’t cooperate.

Dr. Gregory B. Shankman (Utica office) billed for giving workers-compensation exams on fully 150 days he was traveling elsewhere in New York — and even vacationing in Iceland.

Canadian scammers dishonored

Our friends up north in Manitoba, Canada are decidedly unfriendly to the region’s top fraudsters. Manitoba Public Insurance saluted its five worst of 2018.

Like the driver who said she loaned her car to her 22-year-old son for a party. The Dodge Nitro and keys were stolen at the party, her son claimed. Yet a witness saw him burning the car in a ditch early the next morning.

The witness stopped to ask if he was ok. “Yes, thanks. And have a nice day,” he said, and then ran away. He’d crashed the Nitro after boozing that night, and told a curious neighbor “not to speak to police.” Claim of $57,000 (Canadian) denied.

Texas, and the greater Houston area especially, are ground zero for large volumes of insurance fraud in the U.S. Members of the South Texas Chapter of IASIU are striking back with investigations every day.

TASIU also has another passion: charity. Helping hungry people and giving toys to needy kids. It’s generosity for its own sake. Charity also helps TASIU brand insurance fraud as a public scourge.

Charity projects can be low-budget, high-return ways for anti-fraud groups to help people while spreading anti-fraud messages throughout the community.

For starters, TASIU holds drives to benefit Toys for Tots at the Shriner’s Burn Hospital.

Members donate and help collect toys in the Houston and San Antonio areas. The most-recent holiday drive netted around 200 new, unwrapped toys. The Marines picked up the goods during the holiday season in a fitting tribute.

A toy-giving partnership with the local Pasadena Fire Marshal’s Office and Arabia Shrine Temple also puts a smile on kids’ faces. Donated toys go to kids receiving care at Shriners hospitals in the Galveston and Houston areas.

Much of the Shriner action takes place at TASIU’s Gulf Coast Insurance Fraud Seminar, held bi-annually in April. Each investigator who donates a toy is entered in a drawing for prizes sponsored by the Pasadena Fire Marshal’s Office.

More toy drives in the works

More toy drives are planned for the Shriners and Toys for Tots from this coming September to December. TASIU will contact reporters and encourage TV cameras to highlight their anti-fraud efforts — and showcase the charity events to the Houston-area community.

TASIU also held a food drive to support a local food bank in San Antonio. Members worked with their insurers to donate food, then helped organize the donated provisions during their last event. Investigators wore t-shirts with anti-fraud messages prominently displayed.

A local TV station covered the event, airing a laudatory story on the evening news. Investigators thus promoted the food bank and anti-fraud cause in one story. More food drives are being planned for Houston and San Antonio.

TASIU also has four custom trailers roving the Houston and Brazoria County areas. The trailers are emblazoned with a large alert: “Report arson and insurance fraud … 713-222-TIPS.” Logos of anti-fraud groups such as the Coalition are displayed.

The trailers transport donated toys and food. They also house forensic equipment that Fire Marshal officers use to investigate blazes at the scenes. The trailers are a partnership with the Harris County sheriff, and Fire Marshals of Harris, Pasadena and Brazoria counties.

TASIU’s parent group IASIU helps chapters with grants for public-outreach projects such as these. IASIU funds outreach grants for chapter public outreach and charity efforts. Chapters can receive $500 each to promote fraud awareness. The grants can stimulate local action, and boost consumer awareness of the high costs of insurance crime.

Exploding dollar bills fly at consumers who dial into the website of New York insurers combating insurance scams.

“You Pay! Every Day. Don’t Let Fraud Blow Up in Your Face.” So warns the homepage of the New York Alliance Against Insurance Fraud.

Fraud websites or microsites can attract consumer eyeballs with cool graphics, lively videos and punchy text. Stern deterrent messages and tips on how to avoid being scammed add action specifics to keep consumers safe from fraudsters. These sites are useful models for fraud fighters looking to explain fraud to consumers in their own backyards.

New Jersey consumers are treated to consumer videos from the state Office Insurance Fraud Prosecutor. The opening message:

“With the possible exception of murder and drug abuse, no serious crime attracts as wide a variety of perpetrators as insurance fraud.”

Consumers also are treated to quick summaries of nine leading insurance cons — like auto scams, lying on your application and cheating your health insurer. It’s all part of a three-month statewide effort the office launched last fall as part of International Fraud Awareness Week.

The slogan is “Insurance Fraud. Report It. End It.” The monicker appeared on billboards and buses throughout the state, and on cable TV. Ads also appeared on social networks, radio, and at college and professional sporting events in the state.

A spiffy new fraud-reporting page gives consumers an appealing way to report scams.

AARP has its Fraud Watch Network site. It highlights 40 scams of all kinds frequently aimed at seniors. Insurance cons such as contractor, medical ID theft and health all figure prominently in the lineup.

Check out this campaign site by Canada’s leading life and health trade association. …

The blunt consumer campaign message: “Benefits fraud is a crime.” Watch for the warning signs of health and dental fraud — like your dentist pressuring you to get unneeded procedures. It’s all part of a larger campaign called “Fraud=Fraud” to educate Canadians about insurance wrongdoing.

News reporters can serve, in effect, as adjunct fraud investigators if they’re convinced a scam is afoot and deserves news coverage.

Jennifer Portman churned out news stories about a life-insurance murder for 18 years with the Tallahassee Democrat. Her incessant digging for clues helped break open the cold case and convict the killers. The Democrat built an entire webpage to house all its reporting on the case.

Mike Williams seemingly fell off a boat while duck hunting in 2000. He presumably was eaten by alligators in the lake — his body wasn’t found. Mike’s supposedly best friend Brian Winchester actually shotgunned him and buried his body in a remote area. Winchester and Mike’s wife Denise were having an affair. She also stood to receive $1.75 million of life-insurance money.

The case stayed cold for years without Mike’s body or other clear evidence. Portman doggedly tracked down clues, keeping the case alive. She wrote story after story with new information she uncovered. Like the affair between Denise and Winchester.

Denise finally was handed life in prison in December 2018. Winchester received immunity for fingering Denise and leading investigators to Mike’s body. He’s serving 20 years for kidnapping Denise.

Portman’s detective work and news stories revealing fresh clues helped keep investigators and the public focused on the case year after year.

“You deserve a lot of credit for forcing a solution and ultimately a murder conviction …” retired Tampa Bay Times reporter and Pulitzer winner Lucy Morgan emailed Portman.

“I really suspect that it would’ve been forgotten completely by law enforcement if you had not reminded them of it time after time. A great job in the best spirit of what journalism can do.”

For the first time, more people get their news from social media than print newspapers. That may seem obvious to Millennials and other younger Americans. The stats finally caught up with consumer news habits.

One of five U.S. adults say they often get news via social media. That’s slightly higher than from print newspapers (16 percent). Newspapers and social media were about equal as recently as 2017.

• Newspapers have endured years of steady declines in circulation and modest increases among Americans who use social media, says a Pew Research Center survey earlier this year.

• Americans also want to watch the news instead of reading it, by a wide margin of 47 to 34 percent. Overall, a third of Americans obtain their news from the web — up six percent from 2016.

Surgery centers. “No-fault fraud can run into tens of millions of dollars a year in a state — or even more,” the Coalition told for a story recounting no-fault swindles with surgery centers. “The cost of scams can be so high that they will raise auto premiums for honest drivers.”

Sober homes. “Right now, the rehab system is being gamed by predators who keep addicts relapsing and hooked in order to keep insurance money flooding in,” the Coalition told CBS News (Cleveland) in a story about dishonest sober homes. “Brokers will troll AA meetings, jails, homeless shelters and even the street corners to try and recruit addicts and bid them out to the highest bidder.”

Trump insurance fraud. “The [comprehensive general liability] policy is where so much of the action is in terms of insurance coverage on commercial properties,” the Coalition told a news unit of Atlantic Magazine about allegations that President Trump may have committed insurance fraud. Insurers also conduct a premium audit before issuing the policy. A bad actor could supply doctored figures on sales, staff, value, and other factors to jack up policy limits or lowball premiums, the Coalition added.

Scam fires up. “Socialite and political fundraiser Claire Risoldi lived larger than life — and her bank account,” reads the latest Fraud of the Month. “Small wonder the family matriarch also stole large. Risoldi lifted $20 million of false insurance claims after fire chewed through her family’s 5,600-foot mansion in the Philadelphia suburbs. She loaded up a pasha’s ransom of dodgy claims for jewelry, a large ceiling mural, draperies and other bling.”

Photo opp. “Vehicle photo inspections also are a key touchpoint in wider debates about how best to modernize technology in the auto insurance industry to combat fraudsters,” reads the latest JIFA article, by Coalition member Carco. “Scam artists are adapting new crime tactics every day. A new blueprint for modernizing vehicle anti-fraud efforts thus is needed. It must be heavily driven by new technology, driven by including fraud-detecting and -deterring artificial intelligence.