Arson dogs sniff tiny clues in blackened rubble

Trained canines’ acute sense of smell exposes insurance arsons

The bronze statue stands proudly. A firefighter gazes down on his devoted arson dog. Depending on what you see, they’ve just finished an investigation or are ready for action.

But one thing is clear: The statue signals the close bond between these highly trained canines and their handlers.

The national memorial to America’s four-legged fraud fighters was unveiled outside of Engine Company 2 in downtown Washington, D.C. recently. It’s a tribute to the unique skills that arson dogs bring to investigations of burned-up buildings.

These dogs and their handlers carefully comb the rubble. The pooches sniff for clues that validate an honest insurance claim or expose a fraudulent one. Or maybe the fire was an act of vandalism, or a hate crime.

Key is the dog’s ability to detect accelerants such as gasoline or lighter fluid that fraudsters typically use to start fires. Dogs have a remarkably keen sense of smell. They can detect the smallest clues buried deep in smoking, black rubble.

A canine’s sense of smell is 100,000 times more acute than a human’s, says research. We might notice if a teaspoon of sugar was added to our coffee. Your average dog can detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water, or two Olympic-sized pools worth.

Fraudsters often set several fires in a building. They also might just splash accelerant on the floor, or spill a trail and light it.

Arson dogs can discover these clues, which suggest an abnormal spread pattern or startup point of flames. The pooches signal their handler when they find a clue. Samples then go to the lab for tests that might signal an arson for insurance money or another cause.

The memorial was co-sponsored by Coalition founding member State Farm, and the American Human Association. State Farm has long sponsored the acquisition and training of arson dogs for law enforcement agencies around the U.S.

The insurer’s program has put more than 325 dogs and their partners to work in 44 states, the District of Columbia and three Canadian provinces. In fact several State Farm-sponsored dogs and their handlers in uniform attended the unveiling.

The statue was created by a Colorado firefighter named Austin Weishel. The whole memorial concept was the brainchild of Jerry Means, an arson investigator with the Colorado Bureau of Investigations. The dog in the statue is modeled after his arson pooch.

These canines have helped put thousands of arsonists in jail and made America a safer place. Insurance arsons steal millions of dollars a year. Firefighters and innocent occupants of the building also are injured and even killed. Arson dogs help bring the arson criminals to justice.

Fittingly, man’s best friend is an arsonist’s worst enemy.

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

Arson continues to devastate communities

Awareness Weeks highlights strategies to deter this insurance crime

blogIntent of burning his entire family to death for an insurance payout, Armin Wand III tried to shove his daughter back into his burning house after her pregnant mother had rescued her from the fire.

The Madison, Wis. man enlisted his brother to help for $300 of the expected insurance score. They shoved crumpled pieces of paper under Armin’s sleeping wife Sharon. Lighter fluid burned three-year old Joseph to death while he slept on a couch. Two older boys were locked in their rooms before the blaze began. Their bodies later were found charred together on the bedroom floor.

Wand was convicted of three counts of first-degree intentional homicide, one count of attempted first-degree intentional homicide, and felony murder and arson, which carries a mandatory life sentence. He also testified against his brother. He was given three life sentences.

When arson fires spread out of control, entire communities can be devastated. The consequences, far-reaching.

When arsons are committed for financial gain, the human losses can be staggering. The fires endanger innocent neighbors, family members and brave firefighters.

Part of the reason arson scams are even attempted may be that fraudsters think they can get away with their crimes and make money from bogus claims.

This week is National Arson Awareness week, spreading awareness about the dangers of home arson, and providing communities with tools to help thwart this crime. The Coalition is an official partner of this outreach effort, part of a small and select group of fraud-fighters.

Arson cases often end brutally. Family members have died inside their homes. Fraudsters get caught, find themselves without a home — or just ashes of it —  and with long jail sentences, risking innocent lives and putting their own lives in danger… a bad bargain.

Talk to your friends and neighbors about arson, how to protect their homes, and why fraud is not worth it.

About the author: Jennifer Tchinnosian is communications specialist for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud.

Can MRIs really detect lies?

brain scanI have much faith in technology and believe someday scientists will develop a lie detection method that is nearly foolproof and practical for fraud fighters. Every few years a new method promises to be the holy grail of determining deception, but the hype rarely lives up to reality. We’ve seen everything from truth serum to polygraph to voice-stress analysis, but none has been deemed worthy enough to be accepted by courts as evidence in a criminal trial.

The latest method to create a buzz is the “No Lie MRI,” a system used to measure physiological changes in the brain, which when analyzed, can determine whether someone is lying, according to the owners of the system. In fact, they claim 90% accuracy in recent tests, and are now signing up MRI centers across the country to offer this new service.

The technology came to our attention after we learned an accused arsonist in South Carolina used the system to try to clear his name. Deli owner Nathan Harvey was accused of torching his business, and even though criminal charges had been dropped, his insurer refused to pay his claim. Harvey thought maybe the MRI scan results just might convince the insurer of his innocence. No word yet on whether his claim will be paid any time soon.

Nonetheless, the idea of this technology is intriguing, and if it works, could have widespread application from fraud to interrogating suspected terrorists. It also may pose opportunity since the technology is located in MRI centers. Perhaps insurers could ask their medical billers to undergo the tests to determine whether they are inflating their claims?

Why this cartoon isn’t funny

cartoon
In October more than $50 billion in adjustable-rate home mortgages in the U.S. will be reset. A lot of those borrowers will be in for a shock as they find they can no longer afford their homes. Most will quietly refinance or just find a way to cover the higher mortgage. Some will lose their homes in foreclosure, and still others will take the desperate option of attempting to transfer their financial problem to their insurance company.

Are insurers ready for the potential increase in home arsons? Are fire investigators on alert? Since sub-prime mortgages hit the news earlier this year, we’ve put this issue on our watchlist to determine whether there’s an uptick in people torching their homes. We haven’t seen much of an increase yet, but it bears watching.