A ‘gumshoe’ abroad: Investigating insurance fraud in hostile environments

Insurance fraud is a problem with a very high price tag.

Hundreds of billions of dollars are lost through bogus or grossly inflated claims worldwide each year – with the cost ultimately being shouldered by honest policyholders.

One of the ways insurance companies can protect themselves against fraudulent claims is by conducting an investigation – going through the details of the incident, its impact on the claimant and the veracity of any loss or injury which has been reported.

In the US, Europe and elsewhere, this process involves a not-so glamorous reliance on paper trails and online databases – a far cry from the stereotypical ‘gumshoe’ investigator beloved of Hollywood screenwriters.

Elsewhere, however, things get a little more complex.

In countries from Afghanistan to the Philippines, record-keeping is a little more ramshackle. In places like these, business is often conducted face to face, paper trails sometimes don’t exist, and remote communities may effectively govern themselves.

What this means in practice, therefore, is that claims investigations require feet on the ground – knocking on doors, chasing up leads, discreetly building contacts, and, ultimately, obtaining definitive evidence to determine if insurance fraud has been committed.

Of course, when you’re operating in regions with highly-volatile political climates, a culture of violence or a deep suspicion of outsiders, you need the right people for the job.

Tim Crabtree, a former Louisiana narcotics detective and now Tangiers International’s national accounts director, explained how strategies changed as soon as you left the relative predictability of the US.

“International surveillance is tricky,” he said. “It’s a lot more difficult than trying to do surveillance in the US. It presents a lot more perils, a lot more dangers, depending on what country you’re in.

“Even though an American company may have requested an investigation, all the legalities are in that particular country’s laws. We have to make sure we operate within those laws but also that we do what we need to do.”

Tangiers International will usually use a three-person team to conduct an investigation, including a local field agent who will be acutely familiar with the political and cultural terrain of the country in which they are operating.

Tim explained that having reliable intelligence was key to a successful investigation – and staying safe in sometimes hostile environments.

“Hopefully before you really begin any type of surveillance, a team will go in and do pre-surveillance,” he said. “We see what the challenges are in that area – places where we can observe around the person’s address, where we can go if we need to back off, if we have to talk to anybody or find any information out.

“The best case scenario is being able to get in there and identify everything without having to talk to anybody. But if you need to talk to somebody, you need a suitable pretext – to gain information in a way which means the person you’re talking to does not know why you want to know that information.

“Each country presents its own challenges, both legal challenges and physical dangers. The best way we have found to do this is to have locals who know the country and the specific region inside out.”