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Scams Rise From WTC Ruins

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

"We think that frauds are being committed — the question is when the claims will be presented," said 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 potential, I think, is going to be everything across the board," spokesman Mike Erwin said.

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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; shady contractors submitting bills for work not done; and claims for nonexistent property.

Insurance companies, trying to quickly meet legitimate claims, 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 trade center wreckage.

There have been two arrests involving false reports of dead relatives. One man was charged after claiming his wife and daughter were lost; the unverifiable details in his story tripped him up.

A Canadian woman claimed she lost her husband and received $400 in cash toward her expenses 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 said. "Any time there is a loosening of restrictions, expediting payments, the thieves always see an opportunity to move in."

Bourdeau said the industry expects "a load" of questionable medical claims — either from medical clinics seeking payment for services never rendered, or from individuals teaming with clinics to inflate or invent injuries.

There are already a few fishy-looking claims for cars allegedly lost in the rubble and for life insurance, said 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, Insurance Department spokeswoman Joanna Rose said. And the state attorney general's office is preparing a database of aid recipients so charities can see if a person is duble-dipping.

The Red Cross, the largest relief agency, said its average payment to trade center victims so far is around $15,000, a sum meant to last three months. Some 1,000 families have received payments.

For each applicant, the Red Cross assigns a case worker who becomes "very involved," one hedge against fraud, said a Darren Irby, Red Cross spokesman.

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, said spokesman Sal Prividera.

At Safe Horizon, which has given out $6.5 million in cash to 6,000 families — mostly in increments of around $1,000 to ease loss of 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, senior vice president Elizabeth McCarthy said.

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