In wake of tragedy, scam artists move in

The lure of millions of dollars in benefits paid to those affected by the World Trade Center attacks has already attracted a few scam artists, and more are expected.

"We think that frauds are being committed - the question is when the claims will be presented," says Bernie Bourdeau, president of the New York Insurance Association. "If it doesn't happen, we'll be pleased but astounded."

The National Insurance Crime Bureau, which helps companies work with law enforcement to investigate fraud, says money from insurers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and some 150 charity groups is bound to attract fraud. The NICB warns of the potential for false business receipts and insurance contracts; claims for damaged or destroyed cars that were not in lower Manhattan on Sept. 11; employee claims for nonexistent injuries; contractors submitting bills for work not done; and claims for nonexistent property.

Insurance companies, trying to meet legitimate claims quickly, girded for fraud after state officials directed them to waive the normal requirements for a death certificate. Claims now can proceed even if a body has not been recovered from the wreckage.

There have been two arrests involving false reports of dead relatives. One man was charged after claiming his wife and daughter were lost.

A Canadian woman who claimed she lost her husband received $400 in cash while in New York. She was arrested when she came back to a family relief center for more.

"Our experience in natural disasters is that after the initial shock wears off, there are always people out there making a living committing fraud," Bourdeau says. "Anytime there is a loosening of restrictions, expediting payments, the thieves always see an opportunity to move in."

There are already a few fishy-looking claims for cars allegedly lost in the rubble and for life insurance, says Mike Fella, an agent for the NICB. The NICB also has reports of suspicious claims of auto accidents allegedly caused by the many emergency vehicles on the roads Sept. 11.

Insurance companies can cross-check claims for missing cars with an NICB database of vehicle identification numbers from nearly 700 wrecked cars removed from the trade center rubble.

Other safeguards are being put in place.

A special state investigative task force has been set up for claims related to the World Trade Center attacks, and the state attorney general's office is preparing a database of aid recipients so charities can see if a person is double dipping.

The Red Cross, the largest relief agency, assigns a caseworker to each applicant as a hedge against fraud. The National Association of Realtors, which is helping victims with rent payments, seeks landlord verification before a check is paid jointly to the landlord and tenant.

At Safe Horizon, which has given out $6.5 million in cash to 6,000 families to help cover lost wages, applicants must present proof of employment at a business affected by the disaster. A few people have applied at more than one Safe Horizon location, but the charity's database identified them before they could get two handouts.

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