The nation's insurance companies, through some of their day-to-day practices, have abetted arson-for-profit schemes, according to a Senate committee staff Study.
The staff of the Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations, in a survey at 15 major insurance companies found "substantial shortcomings in the response of the industry as a whole to the current arson crisis." It faulted companies for insuring poor risks without inspection, for not pursuing arson investigations vigorously enough and for not training insurance adjusters in arson investigation.
"The insurance industry over the years has controlled and minimized its auto and life insurance risks. But fire fraud losses -- made possible in part by laxity in underwriting and claims adjustment procedures -- continue to cost billions of dollars each year," the study concluded.
Members of the insurance industry rejected some of the study's assertions and said that other criticized practices are dictated by local and federal regulations designed to protect privacy and to speed payment of insurance claims.
The report acknowledged difficulties confronting insurers but said companies "must pay closer attention to the problem and show greater willingness to alter their day-to-day business practices, several of which make it easy for arsonists and their clients to commit crimes with little fear of apprehension."
There appeared to be broad disagreement within the insurance industry on one point made by the study -- the suggestion that insurers were not adequately inspecting buildings before writing insurance for them.
"I don't think companies make a practice of booking blindly commercial business," said Charles E. Hunt, property counsel for the American Insurance Association, an industry group.
Michael Zipkin, as assistant vice president for Aetna Life and Casualty Co., said insurance companies may write policies before inspection in cases such as when an owner needs proof of insurance to complete a loan transaction. Even so, properties are inspected immediately afterward and the policy will be canceled if problems exist, he said. "Arson is not a problem because of fires that occur between the time insurance is issued and the time inspection is made," he said.
Aetna, which was one of the companies surveyed, refuses to pay claims in suspicious fires, Zipkin said. According to the study, however, four of 15 companies surveyed said they might "if investigatory costs seemed too high compared with the value of the claim."
Resisting suspicious claims is made more difficult by state laws that impose penalties on insurers for failure to pay claims within a set period, the report acknowledged and industry representatives said.
Getting tougher on claims "would take a tough stance by the industry, a commitment to lose money perhaps," said Hunt. "We have no argument against insurers doing what they should do in the best interest of society but the costs are substantial and there is no guarantee of success," he said. Consumers would bear the costs, according to Hunt.