Mobs seem to still rule in NYC

Every state should have an organization like NYAAIF

facial recognitionRussian gangsters increasingly are teaming up with their Italian counterparts in New York City to form bogus clinics and bilk auto insurers, says a veteran FBI agent who supervises undercover operations in the Big Apple. That’s not good news for the fraud-fighting community in the state — and even worse for the policyholders who are footing the bill.

Supervisory Special Agent John Campanella briefed members of the New York Alliance Against Insurance Fraud (NYAAIF) yesterday on the litany of organized mobsters working healthcare fraud in New York. They include Russians, Armenians, Georgians, Ukrainians and a couple of Eurasian groups I learned about for the first time.

Agent Campanella walked through the organized structure of Russian and Italian syndicates, how they differ, how they are alike and how the FBI penetrates them during undercover operations. With the growing heat on no-fault auto fault, many gangs are now turning to Medicare and Medicaid to ply their trade, Campanella said.

His was one of two insightful presentations during the NYAAIF annual meeting held in downtown New York City. The chief of the state’s DMV investigations unit discussed how new facial recognition technology is catching thousands of people with duplicate licenses. Fraudsters range from ordinary people whose driving privileges were revoked to suspected international terrorists. In one case, Russian mobsters transported vans full of people from New York to DC to get fake licenses by bribing a DC licensing official. With the new DC licenses, they obtained new licenses in New York and used them to bill insurers for bogus treatment from staged crashes and Medicaid schemes.

New York continues to be a hotbed for all kinds of fraud schemes, whether initiated by organized gangs or everyday people. The NYAAIF has helped to keep the focus on fraud for more than 10 years with an aggressive TV, radio and billboard advertising program. Members who attended yesterday’s event got a preview of next year’s campaign and heard about many successes so far in 2012. That included a record year for media outreach and social media penetration, with which the Coalition assists NYAAIF.

Every state should have an organization like NYAAIF.

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

A gift of holiday flames

The holidays can be seen as a point of vulnerability

grinchThe grinch won’t be the only one trying to destroy Christmas. We’ve seen numerous cases of home arsons pop up right around the time when people should be thanking and embracing their families most. Some embrace the idea of an insurance payout and thank their family by torching their home.

On a cold December evening, just minutes before midnight, Debra Morris smelled smoke in her second-floor apartment. The mother of two rushed her family out, raced back inside to rescue her cat, and died in the blaze. Eventually, her landlord Jeffrey Alnutt got 25 years to life for the arson and murder.

Last month, a California couple was arrested for a holiday fire that destroyed their home one day before their policy was set to lapse. Investigators couldn’t find any trace of the items that were supposed to have been lost in the flames. In another case, firefighters discovered a N.Y. home burned to the ground on Christmas eve.

Firefighters yesterday issued a release warning homeowners against the dangers of fried-turkey fires. I hope that doesn’t give anybody any ideas. Christmas lights have also been known to spark home fires in the holiday season.

Most people reach a point of desperation before considering fraudulent escapes from their monetary straits. The holidays can be seen as a point of vulnerability. Purported victims can get more empathy for an arson and attempt to increase chances of getting away with it. Still, if ethics are  thrown out the window as a consideration in debating fraud, the risk-reward ratio should not be. Arson can kill families, destroy homes and leave survivors in jail.

As Thanksgiving approaches, we wish everyone a happy and fraud-free holiday season.

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

It’s time to deflate deadly airbag schemes

Thousands of motorists may be driving with cheap knockoffs from China

airbag_schemeMost of us rarely think twice about the airbags tucked into the steering column and other crevasses of our cars and SUVs.

Bang into another car, and presto, the airbag inflates in a micro-second. Your life expectancy just increased.

But guess what. There’s no guarantee you have a working airbag. This blog will expand on an earlier blog on the topic. Remember our last visit to this seedy world:

Thousands of motorists may be driving with cheap knockoffs from China.
The feds tested several of the airbags. Some exploded , spewing metal shards and other shrapnel onto crash dummies. Others just didn’t work.

Those crash dummies could’ve been your kids in a real accident. As many as 250,000 or more drivers may have junky airbags right now, the feds say. A simple trip to the grocery store can be a life-and-death proposition if you’re in a crash.

People have died or been grievously injured in crashes after crooked body shops tampered with their airbags. There’s big profit in cheating you. A knockoff can cost about $50, but the body shop charges your auto-insurance policy hundreds of dollars for a new airbag.

Now comes the scary part: Dishonest mechanics insert junk into the airbag cavity. Old sneakers, beer cans, packing peanuts and other garbage have been found. Body shops also might insert useless knockoffs.

And now let’s look toward an entirely new danger posed by storms such as Sandy: Flood waters will ruin a lot of vehicles. How many will be reconditioned and resold to innocent consumers? The airbag modules may be in place, but they they’ve been ruined by the flood waters and minute debris particles.

The airbags may not have been professionally checked out, and may not work if you’re in a crash.

When these vehicles are cleaned up, much of this damage is not obvious with a basic inspection. And used-car sellers often ship reconditioned cars to other states for sale to unknowing consumers.

Many states require a flooded car to have that fact stamped on its title to warn buyers. Some states require it only when an insurer pays a total-loss claim. Deceitful wholesalers often take flooded cars to a state without any flood-labeling rule and obtain a new title. This is known as “title washing.” It leaves you dangerously vulnerable.

Airbag hoodwinks sit just inches away from you, or your spouse or kids. But these ruses are fiendishly hard to catch because the airbag is out of sight.

The swindlers don’t care if you live or die; they just want their blood money. But there’s a lot you can do help ensure your airbags are safe and life-saving.

Have a certified mechanic check the airbag of any used or reconditioned vehicle you’re considering buying. Visit a useful federal site, the National Motor Vehicle Title Information Service. Check the vehicle’s history via a commercial service. And visit the Coalition’s convenient alert for more ideas.

Your next drive should be safely in your car, not an ambulance.

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

Fighting against medical quackery

Ailing consumers too often are given false hope by fraudsters

quackI’ve been a fan of Dr. Stephen Barrett since I discovered his website, Quackwatch.org, many years ago. He provides a much-needed public service by shining a harsh light on questionable treatments and drugs being hyped by shady medical providers and other con artists. He is founder of the National Council Against Health Fraud and publishes a free weekly newsletter, Consumer Health Digest.

Ailing consumers too often are given false hope by fraudsters who look to line their own pockets by exploiting their desperation. Some treatments and therapies are criminal; others are just based on little or no science.

I don’t always agree with Dr. Barrett’s conclusions, but I have learned much from him about the dark side of medical quackery over the years.

He also provides a valuable public service by  teaching medical professionals about quackery. A recently posted online video, “What Can Chiropractors Really Do For Pain,” explains a variety of questionable and even dangerous chiro treatments. Among them are heat & cold therapy, mechanical devices, supplements, applied kinesiology and hair analysis. Fraud fighters who deal with medical claims might want to check it out.

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

Riptide of fraud may follow Sandy’s path

Now that cleanup is beginning, homeowners in affected areas must increase their vigilance

SandySandy is gone, but she has carved out massive damage that will take months to repair.

Now that cleanup is beginning, homeowners in affected areas must increase their vigilance for scam artists who inevitably follow natural disasters.

Sandy may be the one of most expensive storms in recent history. Contractors will be in great demand as the repair network gets stretched to the limit. Shady operators inevitably will descend on disaster areas, trying to bilk homeowners and their insurers.

These crooks prey on the disaster scene’s chaos and anxiety of consumers as they work to put their lives back together. Fraud fighters, consumer groups, insurers and government agencies must get important messages onto the streets.

• Make sure a contractor is licensed, if required. And if not, check with the proper agencies and insurers to make sure the contractor is reputable;

• Avoid contractors who go door-to-door. They’re almost always up to no good; and

• Work closely with your insurance company to make sure the right repairs are done, and done right.

Megastorms like Sandy also should prompt lawmakers to better protect disaster victims from dishonest contractors. A half-dozen states this year enacted laws giving homeowners more protection from storm chasers.

Here are key contractor laws that should go on the books in more states:

• Let consumers cancel repair contracts if the property insurer denies the claim. This protects consumers from contractors who try to con insurers into paying for repairs that are shoddy, needless, inflated or never even done;

• Contract forms also should clearly mention the consumer’s recision rights. And that it’s a crime for the contractor to offer consumers inducements (such as paying the deductible) to sign up, or for the contractor to act as an intermediary between the consumer and the insurer (i.e., an unlicensed adjuster); and

• Require contractors to register with the state. Registration is not a state license, but will help ensure that a state knows which contractors are doing business within its borders.

The floodwaters now are subsiding, but next may come a riptide of fraud. We must be ready.

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