Early one morning, a middle aged couple returned home from working all night, climbed into bed exhausted and immediately fell asleep, only to be awakened 20 minutes later by what they thought was their car alarm. When the wife got up to investigate, she determined that it was a smoke detector activating. She roused her husband, and they found flames consuming the dishwasher and the kitchen cabinets. They exited the building and dialed 911.
The volunteer fire department responded very quickly, containing the fire to the kitchen, which was gutted, along with heat and smoke damage to the entire home. The homeowners were very pleased with the response and performance of the firefighters. They were expressing their appreciation to the Chief while the last apparatus was leaving the scene when they were approached by the adjacent neighbor. The neighbor said that they had received a call from the Chief 911 County Dispatcher, and he needed to talk to the family who suffered the fire. Knowing that in all likelihood this was not 911 calling but someone affiliated with the independent public adjustors' industry, I asked the couple if I could impersonate the husband and take the phone call on their behalf. They said "yes."
I picked up the phone, and the individual on the other end identified himself as the Supervisor of the 911 Center. First, he asked if there was a lot of damage and expressed his concern for our loss. He then indicated he needed information for his records. He asked details about the family's homeowner's insurance - and I gave him my own insurance agent and insurance company. He then asked if the family had an attorney - I gave him the name of one of the fire district attorneys. He wished me and my pseudo-wife good luck and ended the call.
I immediately contacted my insurance agent and the attorney, informing them that I had used them as contacts in what I believed to be a scam that has been plaguing this region for many years.
Within an hour, both professionals had been contacted and played along with our own reverse scam. In a short period of time, the real homeowners were contacted by a public adjustor who implied that he was working with their insurance company and attorney in order to make sure that they were properly taken care of with their insurance and fire damage repairs.
I took this information to the local District Attorney's Office, and they determined that the phone call originated from a company in the Bronx that monitors fire dispatch frequencies, makes these phone calls, and then passes the information along to independent insurance adjustors. I also filed a complaint with the New York State Insurance Department.
Unfortunately, neither agency was successful in stopping these unscrupulous companies from taking advantage of homeowners who are emotionally vulnerable after having their lives turned upside down by fires.
Since we have been unable to stop them, we have been advising homeowners and businesses that they are likely to be contacted and that they should be extremely careful about signing any contracts that they may come to regret. We obtained a supply of booklets called "After the Fire," which was printed by the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs. We distributed these booklets to the local Fire Chiefs and encourage the fire departments to hand them out to building owners after structure fires, along with advice on the public adjustors. I also became aware of a new publication which is available for sale, entitled, "The Red Guide to Recovery," which addresses this issue.
The fire service may not be able to shut these characters down, but we can make it more difficult for them to do business.