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Siren-chasers: Avoid the help you don't ask for

After a wreck, a fire or a storm, watch out for unsolicited offers of help. Let your insurance company earn its money instead.

By QuinStreet Jul 18, 2014 12:06PM
This post comes from Susan Ladika at partner site on MSN MoneySay you've been in a wreck. Or your home has been damaged by a storm. Or your kitchen has gone up in flames.

You're shaken and dazed.

Ambulance with lights flashing © PBNJ Productions/Corbis
That's when the siren chasers strike -- trying to sign you up for services you don't need or can ill afford. If you fall prey to their scams, you could be on the hook for hundreds or thousands of dollars and might even lose your home.

I witnessed siren-chasing firsthand when my neighbor accidentally started a kitchen fire. Within minutes of the fire trucks pulling away after extinguishing the blaze, two fire restoration companies showed up at her home, trying to get her to hire them to make the repairs.

She sent them both packing and called her homeowners insurance company instead.

That decision drew praise from National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) spokesman Frank Scafidi, quoting the NICB mantra: "If you didn't request it, reject it."

"They're trying to take advantage of your emotions," Scafidi says.

They also are trying to take advantage of your wallet.

Don't play tow-truck roulette

After a wreck, a tow truck driver you never called might suddenly appear and try to tow your car from the scene.

"Once they take your car away," Scafidi says, "the costs could be in the thousands" to get your vehicle back.

While tows arranged through an insurer, a service like AAA or a responding police offer are typically priced according to set schedules, rogue operators don't have to play by those rules in many areas.

If your car is blocking traffic, the law enforcement officer at the scene may call a tow truck to move it out of the way, says Scafidi, who used to work for the Los Angeles Police Department. The department had a list of preferred towing companies it used that worked for the department for a set fee.

Otherwise, you should call your insurance company, AAA or a company you've used before rather than hire a random tow truck driver who appears on the scene, he says.

These tow truck drivers and restoration companies may monitor police scanners and respond after a call goes out, or the drivers could be roaming local highways, looking for an accident.

Ding dong: Trouble calling

Lynne McChristian, Florida representative for the Insurance Information Institute, says if your home is damaged in a disaster or by an accident, it's not unusual to have unscrupulous companies show up at your door. They say they'll handle your insurance claim, serving as an intermediary between you and the insurance company.

If you sign their contract, don't be surprised to be charged more than your insurance company will pay, McChristian warns. If you don't pony up the difference, the repair company could put a lien on your home.

Rather than signing on the dotted line if a rogue company shows up at your home, your first step should be to call your homeowners insurance company for assistance, McChristian says.

The insurance company will typically have a list of approved vendors that can make the repairs.

"Let your insurance company earn its keep," says managing editor Des Toups. "Contractors and restoration firms have a stake in building a continuing relationship with them. Pressure from a big insurance company to make things right can be very effective."

If you hire an unscrupulous company to do the work, the company might do more than your homeowners insurance company deems necessary, so the work isn't covered by insurance, or classify repairs incorrectly so they don't correspond with your policy and your insurance company might not honor the claim, Scafidi says.

Have a plan before the disaster

The problem with siren chasers is particularly acute after a major disaster, such as a hurricane or tornado, where whole blocks have been damaged or destroyed. (See "It's disaster season. Is your home ready?")

In a situation such as a hurricane, insurance companies will send swarms of adjusters so they'll be stationed near the area before the storm, McChristian says. If the disaster is unexpected, such as an earthquake or tornado, insurers will send adjusters to the scene as soon as possible. When law enforcement gives the all-clear, the adjusters will fan out through the area to help their customers.

Insurance companies try to handle disaster claims quickly, she says. Because they are handing out payment for repairs, "the money attracts unscrupulous people."

If you decide to hire your own contractor, you need to make sure they're properly vetted.

To help customers avoid being taken for a ride, Allstate passes out brochures at its mobile claims centers when responding to disasters.

Their recommendations include:

  • Be wary of contractors who solicit door to door. Instead work only with established contractors.
  • Make sure the contractor is licensed, bonded and insured and can document that.
  • Check their references.
  • Check your local Better Business Bureau to see if complaints have been filed against contractors you're considering.
  • Don't pay upfront or pay in full.

Because you never know when you might be faced with an accident or disaster, so "people need to develop their fraud radar," McChristian says.

More from

Jul 18, 2014 4:43PM
I had this happen to an uncle of mine last year. The firefighters were STILL on the property while two different siren chasers drove up trying to sell him services. One saleswoman actually had to bring an interpreter because she could not speak English

Luckily another relative works for Farmers Ins. and told him pretty much what this article states.

NEVER accept services or sign anything before you talk to your insurance company.

Jul 18, 2014 5:04PM
More commonly known as 'Ambulance Chasers'.

Jul 18, 2014 5:35PM

When we have a hurricane or tornado anywhere near the area, all kinds of jack-legs show up trying to get roofing, etc., jobs.

How do I know they are jack-legs?  Because they showed up!

If they were any good at it they could make an honest living where they are from.

So if they left to go 'where the work is', it meant they sucked so bad no one would hire them at home.


Jul 18, 2014 7:46PM
Did anyone else feel like this article sounded like one of those Allstate Mayhem commercials?
Jul 18, 2014 9:05PM
They are counting on P.T. Barnum's line:  "There's a sucker born every minute."
Aug 5, 2014 3:47PM
I love the Insurance Industry. I don't see why anyone would ever question their ethics or business practices. I believe everything that I see & hear on TV, the Internet & radio.
Some people just love to complain about what they don't understand & most people don't understand how trustworthy, ethical and caring the Insurance Companies actually are.

Here is an example from a recent News story that I have heard nearly nothing about over the past 2 years even though it affected 10's of thousands of people who obviously know little about the truly giving nature of the Insurance Industry & how they go out of their way to help their paying cilents in their time of need :

"State Farm documents obtained in the lawsuit reveal an attempt by managers to hide the company's policy of non-payment from state insurance regulators.

"They absolutely went through an effort to cover it up," Source stated "These emails are coming from the top. They're setting policy. And that policy by their own admission … shows conclusively they have not paid thousands of people."

Aug 5, 2014 3:35PM
SO Much nice Information listed here- TOO bad it's all Insurance Industry Hype-
IF you know-it-alls think that your Insurance company will not try to get out of paying your full claim or denying all together YOU are one of the many fools being born each second.
Secondly IF you think the contractor THEY recommend has your best interests in mind above the Insurance company that provides them with steady work & in many cases unreported, illegal kickbacks, you truly are a sucker.

Also, IF you actually believe that the Insurance Company's "preferred vendor" is automatically going to be the best or most qualified to repair your property THINK AGAIN. Just google customer complaints for Serve Pro, Paul Davis or Service Master as an example- there are tons of complaints about shoddy work, over-billing the client themselves as opposed to the insurance company. lies, broken promises etc. These are ALL Preferred Vendors meaning Your insurance company WILL push you to use them, heavily in many cases as opposed to a restoration company that is not affiliated with them (they have no leverage in this situation).

IF YOU actually believe that you can simply trust your insurance company to treat you ethically, it is time to do yourself and your family a favor & do some actual research before you need to utilize them & find out what the TRUTH is, the hard painful way that hundreds of thousands of paying clients have already  experienced- Here is a under reported headline (nice to have your corporate pals and affiliates in the "news' making sure none of your dirty laundry get aired publicly) "State Farm Insurance, the nation's largest home insurer, faces a new criminal investigation in Texas related to how it handled potentially tens of thousands of hurricane claims there, ABC News has learned exclusively."

So yeah- the contractors who can't get paid without the Insurance companies approval - they are the "Bad Guys" keep believing that message thy shovel down your throat until the day you need someone on YOUR side of a claim being manipulated by your Holy, totally trustworthy, good hearted Insurance company, while you are at it just place a big sign reading "the PAWN'S residence"  right above your front door.

As an example here is just one site that an angry client who happened to know more about his actual rights than most people in his situation do decided to create when he was exposed to the crooked, self-serving nature of the US Insurance Industry- he only targets one company, the one that his experiences center around BUT the story IS the same no matter what company you decide to research- the insured in this country are continually taken advantage of by this industry that has no other goal than to generate as much profit as possible and therefore the laws (created by lobbyists, their money and it's influence NOT Democracy or a desire to benefit the insured)  that have been altered to benefit the Industry that pays our politicians NOT the constituents of our politicians meaning YOU...
Anyway, here is the web address: farmersinsurancegroupsucks dot com
If you want to keep believing the fairy tale that Insurance Companies are the victims & independent contractors are the bad guys GO right ahead - it is your right, but it is also at your peril IF you ever actually have to file a claim
Aug 5, 2014 2:43PM
NIce !! What about the FACT that the Insurance companies are notorious for cutting corners through the use of "preferred contractors" who work for the Insurance company at the end of the day NOT the home owner.
Florida has had such an issue with shady INSURANCE Companies that it has had to set up state sponsored mediation between policy owners and the Insurance companies that try to shortchange them by thousands of dollars on each claim.
Nice to see the Insurance Companies can depend on their corporate connections to keep mis-information like this afloat. IF what these "fire chasers" do is so illegal, then why are they allowed to exist - short answer because they ARE LEGAL and give clients like myself an alternative to being taken advantage of by shady contractors with big insurance company connections. IF you want to print something to actual PROTECT the CONSUMER then why not print up the many available stories about contractors with cozy Insurance Industry relationships and the several millions of dollars in kickbacks, luxury vacations, and other ILLEGAL perks that exist between the 2 groups. OR why not write up a story about the FACT that the Insurance industry was fined not too long ago for using software designed to to cut corners (and thousands of dollars to paying customers) & increase their profitability - A story about how the program Colossus is being used to shortchange the insured on their claims so that the company they pay for coverage can enjoy higher profits-no other reason.
Without someone who knows the industry inside & out on your side - YOU ARE going to get shorted on your pay out by your insurance company. 
Myt personal experience was that the company I paid for years tried to send out an adjuster who wrote up my roof damage & tried to pay me only $ 850 for roof damage that was over $9,000 to repair. After 10 months of lies & poor communication between myself & the Insurance company I took them to state mediation, after meeting with the 2 parties for approximately 15 minutes the Insurance company was ordered to provide payment for the full $9,000+ job. This would NOT have happened without the state's involvement as the name of the game for Insurancecompanies is to wear down the claimant in hopes that they will give up & go away. They will deny almost any claim in hopes of this final outcome. Your story is weak & one-sided- It is a WELL KNOWN FACT THAT INSURANCE COMPANIES ARE THE BIGGEST FRAUDS & SCAMMERS - My only saving grace was a contractor (not in bed with the Insurance Companies) who advised me what steps to take & encouraged me not to give up 
Jul 19, 2014 5:59PM
Here in S/E Florida - victims injured, in say, motor vehicle accidents usually results in a medical evacuation "HELICOPTER"  showing up to transport the injured to the closest hospital's ER -- even if the hospital ER is but a short distance away.
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