Send in the clowns.

To grifters, cons and cheats, the devastated Gulf Coast is a three-ring circus with a captive audience of rubes ripe for the picking.

Scam artists don't mind applying a little upward pressure on what Jersey City, N.J. based risk wrangler ISO Properties Inc. says will amount to at least $34.4 billion in insurance losses from Hurricane Katrina alone.

Fraud criminals know the insurance industry is fat with a 29.1 percent increase in net income in the first half of 2005 alone. They also know more than 850,000 housing units were destroyed, damaged, or left uninhabitable or inaccessible by recent Gulf Coast storms.

They want a piece of the action and they don't much care how they get it.

Fortunately, the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud says it has their number.

Comprised largely of insurance companies and consumer advocates, the coalition expects a cottage industry of funny business offering everything from arson for hire to fake deaths to descend upon the devastated area looking to have a field day in rip offs.

The coalition is advising area residents, including those forced from the Gulf Coast area, not to be taken by the "generosity" of strangers claiming to be someone they are not.

The group advises:

  • Use reputable local and licensed contractors.
  • Get a signed contract before work begins and pay only a portion of the coast at the onset and portions as the work progresses.
  • Never pay in full before work begins.
  • Never pay any portions in cash.
  • Use only adjusters from your insurer to inspect damage before any work begins
  • Legitimate public adjusters, who work for consumers and take a portion of the paid benefits should be licensed, should have references and should not ask you to inflate insurance claims.

The coalition also says it will be vigilant looking out for the following come-ons.

  • Crooked public adjusters -- Some adjusters may charge homeowners a large fee, then disappear without handling the claim. They also may show owners how to file bogus claims, for a cut of the insurance money. Some adjusters may also refer victims to crooked contractors who bribe the adjuster for referrals.
  • Shady contractors -- Unlicensed or inexperienced contractors who perform shoddy work, but charge a victim's insurer large bills are already at work. Some contractors also will charge much of the money up front and then disappear without completing the work.
  • Lost or damaged property that never existed -- Claiming lost, stolen or destroyed cars jewelry, stereos, computers or other items never owned is illegal. So is inflating losses.
  • Home arsons -- Likewise, anyone who lacks flood insurance and torches their home because their policy covers fire but not flood could spend time up a swollen river.
  • Phantom claimants -- Some swindlers will put a spin on identity theft and impersonate real claimants to steal insurance checks.
  • Fake deaths -- The creepiest cons claim they've lost a loved one whose body was never found. Outsiders use a ruse that a spouse or loved one "disappeared" while visiting the Gulf region to make bogus life-insurance claims for people who are still alive.
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