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).

Beware psychologically loaded questions

A written record helps when it's time to give your statement. Don't ever do this without talking to your own insurance agent first. If you've hired a lawyer, request that all statements go through your legal representative.

When you do make a statement, watch out for loaded questions. A member of Asif Latif's family was treated rudely by a claims adjuster who "tried to get her to admit the accident was her fault." This inspired him to start the After Car Accidents website to offer tips on how to work with insurance companies.

According to Latif, an adjuster might ask things like:

  • How could you have avoided the auto crash?
  • How much do you think you are responsible?
  • Do you think the weather (snow, rain, wind or fog) affected you?
  • Did you have any previous injuries like back or neck pain before the car wreck?
  • Can we get access to your medical records and the name and address of the doctor who is treating you? (Don't do this, as it potentially gives access to your entire medical history.)

According to Gusner, an adjuster might offer to come to your home. There he or she will hit you with psychologically sneaky questions. A young mother might be asked, "You can still take care of your kids, right?"

"No mom wants to say, 'No, I'm not taking care of my kids,'" Gusner says. "The claims adjuster might be friendly and nice, and you might want to think of him as a friend. But he might get paid a bonus to settle as quickly as possible."

Don't let yourself be hurried

The faster you settle, the less likely your rights will be fully protected. Suppose a claims adjuster shows up at the scene, runs some numbers and offers you a check for $1,000 to fix your car, plus an additional $500 for the "inconvenience"?

Don't take it, advises J.D. Howard of the Insurance Consumer Advocate Network. You might have a soft-tissue injury that you can't feel right away but that three days later will hurt like a tax audit.

"Which is why the insurance claims adjuster wants to get to you as soon as possible," says Howard, himself an adjuster for 26 years.

It is possible to get those release forms set aside. But it's not a sure thing, and it costs time, aggravation and attorney's fees.

Philip Reed, a senior consumer editor at Edmunds.com, interviewed a former adjuster who recalled one accident victim who took the first offer, saying he trusted that the company would be honest.

The adjuster admitted to "almost" feeling bad about that. "I wanted to say, 'Wait! Wait! Don't you want to negotiate?' But being a good claims adjuster, I would never do that."

Refuse to be rushed. Would you take the first offer if you were buying a car instead of trying to get it fixed?

Do your homework

Depending on your situation, it can be hard not to feel rushed. Commuters need to get to work. One-car families find themselves stranded without a way to shop for necessities. People caring for elderly parents need to get Mom or Dad to a doctor.

Insurance policies generally allow for a rental car while yours is being fixed. Keep the receipts and insist on reimbursement. (More on that below.)

If you don't already have an auto shop you trust, find one pronto. (Read "Can you trust your mechanic?" on MSN Autos.) That's because a claims adjuster will almost certainly steer you toward a "preferred" repair place.

Don't go there. According to Reed, insurance companies "know they can control costs much better at certain shops" by specifying the most basic of repairs.

"You can fix a car so that it looks beautiful and works pretty well, but there might be serious problems underneath," he says.

Even if you choose the shop, be ready to hold the claims adjuster to certain standards. In March 2010, Ritter Hoy of Columbus, Ohio, was T-boned while driving her Infiniti. She declined to use the at-fault driver's "preferred" shop. Yet when she tried to sell the Infiniti about seven months later, it was found to have extensive frame damage.

Hoy called her body shop and was told the vehicle had been fixed "to the specifications of the insurance company." Ultimately, the vehicle sold for $2,500 less than its Blue Book value.

Be prepared to push back

While you're waiting to hear the repair estimate, start looking for "comps," or autos of comparable make and model. If your car is too badly damaged, it might be declared a total loss. You need to know a realistic replacement cost so you can judge whether the adjuster's offer is fair.

Last February my daughter and son-in-law were broadsided while driving the 2001 Chevrolet Cavalier I had given them when I went car-free. The repair estimate was $2,200 -- just about what the car was worth.

But it was their only form of transportation, and both have chronic illnesses that make it tough to wait for a bus on a 110-degree Phoenix day. After some back-and-forth, Abby and Tim were given $3,400, which they put toward a late-model used car. (Find the best used-car deals on MSN Autos.)

However, they neglected to ask for rental-car reimbursement. The accident plus weeks of negotiations had left them stressed and exhausted -- and forgetful. The claims adjuster didn't remind them they were entitled to repayment. His job was to save his company money.

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Remember: Insurance companies are businesses. They stay in business by taking in more than they pay out. It's in their best interest to get you to accept a bare minimum, so be prepared to push back.

You might not be as lucky as I was back in the 1980s. The other guy's adjuster arranged for repairs and medical bills to be covered. He offered a cash settlement without being asked. My agent told me that's because the other driver did not contest my version of the accident.

Not because I was telling the truth, but because he wasn't: The woman in the car with him was not his wife.

Donna Freedman is a freelance writer in Seattle. You can find more of her writing on MSN Money's Frugal Cool blog and at Surviving and Thriving (motto: "Life is short. But it's also wide.").