An insurance company adjuster’s request for invoices of personal property items can be a trap for otherwise honest policyholders. I have been thinking about this topic as a result of Corey Harris‘ post, Notifying the Police in the Case of a Theft Loss, and the weekly highlighted fraud case in Claims Magazine, "Fraud of the Week: Suit Yourself." The basic rule for policyholders to remember is that you are under no obligation to give an insurance company what you do not have and never make up a document because the insurance adjuster says you need it to get paid. For policyholder counsel and public adjusters, protect your client and make certain they are not doing this.

Let’s set the stage for how this happens. After a theft or a fire, the insurance company adjuster comes to the loss. One of the items orally requested from the policyholder is a list of all the lost, stolen or destroyed personal property along with all receipts. Exactly what is said becomes a major issue and some of my clients in the past have indicated that they did not make a claim for personal property items because the insurance adjuster said they had to have receipts to verify ownership, value, age, etc. Sometimes, my clients hear the instructions and think they are required to have receipts or they will not get paid.

I have always felt that the proper instruction from an honest insurance adjuster knowing that most people do not keep records or receipts of their covered "stuff" is:

The insurance policy allows us to ask for all the documents you have that help verify the loss. If you have any receipts for the items you are claiming, I would like to see those originals. If I need a copy, I will pay you for the cost of the copy. Please do not think that you have to have a receipt of the purchase of any personal property item you are making claim for, but if you do, I have to see it as soon as possible. Regarding your purchase of replacement items for those that are lost, the policy does require you to keep those documents of purchase and those receipts. You have to keep those post-loss purchase receipts as a condition under the policy to get replacement cost benefits."

(Note: In Florida, a homeowner insured with an admitted carrier gets replacement cost of personal property right away, so that instruction is not entirely accurate in Florida.)

Some insurance adjusters fail to make the highlighted portion clear to the policyholder. Some policyholders fail to hear it. And as a result, invoices are made up or somehow obtained that are not the original but a fabrication. Special Investigative Unit (SIU) adjusters love this game of finding the fraudulent invoice. While I have no problem of them catching frauds, I hate when otherwise honest people are baited into a needless situation of committing a fraudulent act just to get what is already owed to them.

The Claims Magazine article could be such a case or it could be a case of a person trying to justify an intentionally inflated claim:

When Gayland Anthony Oliver suffered a structure fire to his Greensboro, N.C., home in May 2009, he is alleged to have used the opportunity to pad his claim with some pretty fancy duds.

…Oliver claimed that $8,100 in custom-tailored suits had been destroyed in the structure fire. However, State Farm Fire and Casualty Company found the claim suspicious and conducted an investigation. They discovered that the invoices submitted for payment were fraudulent and did not reflect the true cost of the suits.

Oliver was arrested for submitting false claims to his insurance company….

Corey Harris’ post was accurate, but there are many of the same traps for the honest policyholder in the theft scenario. The insurance company has many valid reasons to require that the police are notified following a theft loss. Three of those are:

  1. Theft is not only a crime against the owner, but one against society. Finding thieves and placing them behind bars helps everybody, including insurance companies and their customers.
  2. The police often recover stolen items. To that extent, the recovery of stolen items mitigates the insurer’s loss and if recovered soon enough, the policyholder’s loss as well.
  3. Theft always has a component of a moral risk to the insurer. A few policyholders stage, hide or otherwise claim that a loss occurred as a result of theft caused by a third party when it simply is not true. Unlike a natural disaster, there is always a possibility of fraudulent theft. The requirement to notify the police helps prevent such from occurring, increases the probability of finding it, and therefore reduces the "moral hazard."

The police may ask for a list of what was stolen and the "value" of those items. The important thing for the honest policyholder is to get a revised list to the police if either the items or values change so that the SIU guys do not start asking about discrepancies. They will often check, and they may inquire as to significant differences. If numerous items are stolen, most people will not realize what is missing until they conduct an inventory of what is left and try to remember what may be missing. Sometimes, people simply forget what items they owned or realize that items in another part of their structure were also stolen until they look for them. The important thing is to keep the insurance company and police informed and with the same information about the changes and why the changes are being made.

And always remember, two wrongs never make a right. Never make up an invoice and never claim more than the full value of an item just because the insurance company may threaten not to pay or pay enough. When the insurer does not conduct itself in the right manner, I bet you can guess the type of professional that should be called to do something about that.