An illustration of what can happen in the aftermath of a disaster
By Sean Scott
It was 11:15 p.m. on a Sunday evening when Henrietta Zumwalt, an elderly widow of 87, was awakened to the sound of a smoke alarm blaring in the hallway of her home. Opening her bedroom door and peering out, she could see flames and black smoke billowing from the kitchen. Terrified by the surreal sight, she made her way back into the bedroom, retrieving her glasses and cell phone to call 911. Scooping up Daisy, her faithful Yorkshire terrier and a framed photo of her beloved husband Harold, Henrietta made her way out the backdoor. Within minutes, the fire trucks arrived and began to attack the fire that had now engulfed a large portion of the roof, as Henrietta watched in disbelief. Seated on the curb across the street and clutching Daisy, Henrietta broke down in tears over the loss of her home and 55 years of memories. Moments later an unmarked white pick-up truck pulled up with two men inside, watching the action and observing Henrietta as the Fire Captain stood by her side, consoling her and checking her vital signs. What Henrietta didn’t realize is that when she called 911, the fire department weren’t the only ones listening for emergency calls that night. A shadowy company called Fly-By-Night Board Up Service was also listening with their radio scanner and heard the fire dispatcher call out the 2 alarm fire at 1125 Maple Drive, which was Henrietta’s address.
By 12:30, the fire had been extinguished, half of the home was destroyed, and the fire department was now checking for hot spots, assessing the damages, and investigating the cause of the fire. A couple hours later, with all their work complete, the firemen rolled up their hoses and headed back to the station. As the two men in the white pick-up waited patiently for the fire department to leave, they had spent two hours on their lap-top computer researching public records that revealed who owned the home, Henrietta’s home and cell phone numbers, her property tax and mortgage information, and a vast array of other personal information. Unaware of their presence, Henrietta began to make her way back across the street to her house when the two men approached with clipboards and paperwork in hand. Both were soft spoken, clean-cut young men with a very calm and collected demeanor. “Excuse me, Mrs. Zumwalt, we are from Fly-By-Night Board-Up Service, the fire department called us out to secure your property. All we need is the name of your insurance company and your signature here and we will get started.” This of course was a well rehearsed lie and the beginning of a carefully orchestrated plan to gain Henrietta’s confidence. They seemed like nice guys, and the house did need to be secured, but Henrietta felt uneasy with the two uninvited strangers. They continued “We just want to help you secure your property so no one gets hurt or enters the house while you’re not here. County building and safety ordinances as well as your insurance company require that we secure the property as soon as possible. Besides, it’s late at night, we have all the materials right here in the truck, and the service is free because we work with all the major insurance companies and bill them directly.” Feeling very pressured to act, confused, and emotionally drained, Henrietta relented and signed their contract. Within 20 minutes, two perfect strangers got Henrietta to sign a contract, without her even reading it, they gained access to her home and valuables inside, and positioned themselves for the next step of their plan – the job of securing the contract to rebuild the home and pocketing $250,000 of insurance proceeds.
The next morning, with very little sleep, Henrietta came back from an overnight stay at a motel only to be greeted by more un-invited guests, two public insurance adjusters who wanted to represent her against her insurance company, the two men from Fly-By-Night Board-Up Service and one rather heavyset man with a moving truck who wanted to start packing out and cleaning the clothes, furnishings, and personal items. Strangely, all of these people knew one another and had nothing but nice things to say about Fly-By-Night and how great they were at rebuilding fire damaged homes. Seeing that all of the windows were boarded up nicely, a porta-potty and dumpster had been delivered and people were busy measuring and making phone calls, Henrietta began to feel more and more comfortable with the guys from Fly-By-Night. They even had a nice bouquet of flowers delivered with a sympathy card. Henrietta’s spirits uplifted and her guard slowly beginning to drop, her cell phone suddenly rang. “Hello, Mrs. Zumwalt, my name is Jojo Newman and I work with a local church group that supports families after disasters. I heard about the fire you had last night and wanted to see if you needed anything. I lost my home to a fire last year and I know what you are going through. Is there anything I can do to help?” Henrietta, wondering how another stranger got her phone number, yet always courteous replied, “No thank you, I think I am ok right now, but I appreciate your concern.” Jojo then replied, “Ok, if you need any references, I had a great company help me called Fly-By-Night Board-Up Services, they were a godsend.” Henrietta replied, “Thank you so much, they have been here since last night and boarded up my house. I guess I would be in a real fix if they hadn’t been sent out. I have to go now, but I appreciate your call.” What Henrietta didn’t realize was that Jojo was the Mother of the owner of Fly-By-Night, posing as a concerned neighbor and satisfied customer.
Later that afternoon, the guys from Fly-By-Night set up a meeting with Henrietta and a Mr. Wolf, a public insurance adjuster from out of town. Mr. Wolf, a dark haired, middle aged man, drove up in a fancy black car wearing a dark blue three piece suit and sunglasses. He spent two hours with Henrietta sharing how he had worked for an insurance company in the past and how her insurance company was out to take advantage of her. He went on to say “Henrietta, I have been in the insurance claims business for over 25 years and rarely have I seen a fire loss as bad as yours. You need me and I want to help you and here is what I’m going to do. I usually charge 20 percent of the proceeds I recover from the insurance company as my fee, but because you are a senior citizen and I like you, I will adjust your claim for a meager 10 percent. I guarantee you that I will get you far more money than what your insurance company will pay and I will even work along side Fly-By-Night.” Prior to the meeting with Henrietta, Fly-By-Night had made arrangements with Mr. Wolf to pay him an additional 10% in cash if he helped them land the contract for the rebuilding. Henrietta thought for a moment and asked “Mr. Wolf, I am on a fixed income and if it’s going to take $250,000 dollars to fix my home and you take $25,000 for your services, how will I be able to pay Fly-By-Night the difference?” Mr. Wolf responded “Oh don’t worry about that, I’ll work it out with them so you won’t have any out-of-pocket expense, not even your deductible, just sign here.”
Henrietta started to feel uneasy about Mr. Wolf’s pitch and went to her car to call her insurance agent and attorney for advice. They began to look into Fly-By-Night Board-Up and Mr. Wolf and found that Fly-By-Night was actually a front for a company named Shady Construction and Restoration, a company that was unlicensed and involved in numerous lawsuits and criminal investigations stemming from their board-up services. Mr. Wolf turned out to be a con man wanted in three states for theft, elder abuse, indecent exposure, and insurance fraud. Henrietta, now furious for having been set up for a scam, returned with a smile on her face and scheduled a meeting for the next day with the owner of Fly-By-Night, the two board-up salesmen and Mr. Wolf. What she didn’t tell them was that she also invited representatives from the district attorneys office, the contractors licensing board, the department of insurance, and Sam a close family friend who also happened to be a detective with the police department. In the end Fly-By-Night Board-Up Service was forced out of business, Mr. Wolf traded in his three piece dark blue suit for a bright orange one piece jumper and went to jail. Henrietta on the other hand fared quite well. Her insurance company paid her the limits of her policy and she was able to have her home rebuilt by a contractor who just so happened to be the son of the man who originally built her home 55 years earlier.
The moral of the story is watch out for scams especially after a disaster, do your homework before signing any contracts, and if you are approached by uninvited salespeople remember this saying: “If you didn’t request it, reject it
If you suspect an insurance related crime or want more information on insurance related criminal activities, contact the National Insurance Crime Bureau at 1-800-TEL-NICB (1-800-835-6422) or visit their website at www.nicb.org