Following Seas

Man With A Scam - I take on big insurance and avoid jail time.

I have an evil little game I like to play called Cheat the Insurance Company. It's a lot like Screw the IRS, which you probably play at home. Both are easy and fun to do. All you need is a wicked imagination and a larcenous soul. Here's how it's played.

My friend Tony is a boat surveyor. We meet for drinks and I tell him my schemes for sticking it to The Man with über-clever (and highly profitable) insurance frauds. After four years I haven't come up with any that he says will work. Which is good, because I'm stupid enough to try one that has any chance-and I'd get caught.

Because insurance companies claim to lose $80 billion a year to fraud, they take this crime seriously. I'd be thrown in the slammer and be in real trouble. I don't have the right tattoos to be a Crip or a Blood and, with my name, I'm not a likely candidate for the Aryan Nation. All good reasons not to try. But a boy can dream.

Now, don't get all superior on me, asking how I could encourage fraud. I'm not. And don't tell me you've never fantasized about the perfect crime. I know you have because some of our subscribers wear numbers on their jumpsuits. Anyway, last night I thought I had a good one. Strip the ends of an electrical extension cord,

"Nice try, Sparky," from Tony, who by now must be bored with all this. "Fires are easy to investigate even when all that's left is a pile of ashes. Only 1 out of 20 are written up as 'unknown origins.' Not good for you. But the real problem is that when a 12-volt DC circuit overloads, the insulation often burns off and the strands of wire may show some melting. When it happens with 110-volt AC, the entire circuit usually melts away. Easy to spot." Damn, I pay for another round and give it another try. "I'd take the same AC power cord and blast my old GPS and radio, fry the circuits, and say it was lightning."

Shaking his head, Tony squashes this one by telling me that lightning's greatest damage occurs when it meets resistance. GPS and radio antennas have such high resistance that when struck, they almost always blow apart-and it's hard to fake an exploded antenna. But the real problem is that genuine lightning strikes are rare.

"Our tables show that there's less than a 0.02 percent probability of a runabout getting hit," explains Mr. Insurance. "For a cruiser, it's 0.10 percent. If you're in California the likelihood is 0.003 percent-in any kind of powerboat."

I'm stuck for another round. "C'mon man, tell me one that works."

Tony finally relents and tells me about the one that got away. "This guy says his boat burned to the waterline from sunlight. Sounds odd, but I once had a legitimate claim of sunlight being reflected from a hemispherical sink. The concentrated light caused a chart to catch fire, which eventually did $20,000 in damages."

"So why suspect this guy?" I ask.

"There were classic signs. The boat had been in bad shape, the owner's finances were a disaster-in fact, he had lost his job three months before. Then he had too many perfect receipts, many that weren't even dated. He also knew too much about insurance and the way it works. Plus, he just renewed his policy. Classic. But there was nothing I could hang him on."

Feeling no pity for Tony, I'm still trying to stump him. But it looks like the best way to keep insurance companies away from your money is to not give it to them. Do like the big-money players do: self-insure and take the risk. Otherwise pay up and limit your criminal activities to daydreams. This way I can keep seeing you outside the inlet and not inside the Big House.