Image: Insurance adjuster assessing damage to car © Echo, Cultura RF, Getty Images

The light turns green. You drive forward. Suddenly your world slams sideways, and an airbag punches you in the face.

Someone ran the red light and broadsided you. Now what?

Don't say anything, and, for heaven's sake, don't sign anything.

And if the other guy's insurance company sends over a claims adjuster the next day? Don't talk to him either.

Insurance claims adjusters are trained to sniff out fraud. Some say they're also trained to mess with your head by:

  • Trying to get you to settle immediately (one company sends adjusters to accident scenes to offer checks on the spot).
  • Tricking you into compromising your case.
  • Coercing you to use a "preferred" repair shop.
  • Offering less than fair replacement value if the car is totaled.

Image: Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman

"Insurance companies didn't get to be $15 billion and $20 billion (companies) because they give money away," says John Smith of Morgan Hubble Smith Insurance, based in Columbus, Ohio.

Let me be clear: This is not a "how to scam the system" column, and I'm not saying that claims adjusters are all a bunch of crooks. But their job is to settle a case as quickly and inexpensively as possible. It's your job to make sure you get a fair shake. Here's how:

Watch your mouth

Smith suggests this tactic, beginning at the scene: "Just shut up."

"People talk too much. Your best advice is to make sure everyone is OK and then say nothing," says Smith, who's been in the insurance industry for 27 years.

You've just been in an accident. You may be dizzy with adrenaline, purple with fury or injured and not aware of it. The first words that come out of your mouth might not be the smartest ones.

Claims adjusters love to hear things like:

  • Apologies. "I'm so sorry" may come out automatically, but it might be construed as admitting fault.
  • Hyperbole. "He was at least a minute late on the red light!" Witnesses or a red-light camera may say otherwise, undermining your credibility.
  • Remarks about whiplash or about your old car being ready for the junk heap anyway. These nervous jokes can be used against you.
  • Too much information. Don't say the accident occurred on the same day you lost your job and broke up with your girlfriend.

Winter Park, Fla., attorney Shane Fischer tells of one young numbskull who hit an elderly woman's car and jumped out to apologize. He shouldn't have smoked pot before driving, and he was soooo sorry that he'd texted his girlfriend while behind the wheel.

Don't offer too much information to paramedics or emergency room personnel either. A New York bicyclist I'll call "Schwinn" was hit by a drunken driver but made the mistake of saying he'd had some beers with friends earlier that evening.

The other guy's insurance adjuster was willing to risk a trial because he knew a jury might be disgusted with both parties. Thus the final settlement was "significantly reduced" due to Schwinn's mention of beer, according to New York City attorney Oscar Michelen.

Michelen's firm regularly represents insurance companies. He often sees cases compromised by people "making statements they did not have to make or making them inappropriately."

You have the right not to incriminate yourself. So clam up. Tell the police and/or medical personnel only the absolute basics, lest a claims adjuster use your words against you later.

Don't be afraid to speak up

In the 1980s, I was driving on a one-way street when a guy suddenly veered across all four lanes. I hit the brakes and flung my right arm across my daughter, who was belted into the passenger seat.

There was no way to avoid hitting the other car. Neither the driver nor his female passenger were injured. My daughter and I were shaken but unharmed. Or so I thought.

The next morning I ached. By lunchtime my shoulder was on fire. At the end of the day, I couldn't raise my right arm. Yet I almost didn't report the injury, fearing that I'd be perceived as a fraud.

"Honest people seem to be the ones who are afraid to speak up," says Penny Gusner, a consumer analyst at CarInsurance.com.

Had an adjuster talked to me a couple of weeks later, I probably would have said, "Oh, it's not too bad," because I was raised not to be a crybaby. But it was bad. I was in pain for months -- and a quarter of a century later, the injured area still gives me trouble.

Gusner suggests keeping a "pain journal." Write down how you feel each day and how specific activities are affected -- for example, "I can't pick up my baby."

Don't be a drama queen. But do spell out the physical costs and the actual ones (missed work, the need to hire a mother's helper).