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How auto theft investigators work - and how to hire your own

If you have ever had the agonizing experience of having your car stolen and then your claim denied, you're no doubt wondering how your insurer decided your claim was bogus. Insurance companies generally rely on the opinions of auto theft experts to determine whether or not to pay a theft claim. But just how reliable are insurance company auto theft experts?

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Just how reliable are insurance company auto theft experts?

Commerce Insurance Co., for example, originally denied the theft claim of Rose Matthews from Taunton, Mass., for her '95 Geo Tracker. The Tracker was stolen and found in a swamp, and the company investigated Matthews' claim because it didn't initially see obvious signs of theft: The ignition lock cylinder — where you insert your key to start your vehicle — wasn't damaged, and the steering column was intact. "[After the investigation] they told me that the ignition lock was not defeated, and that was based on their expert's opinion, and they were leaning toward denying our claim at that point," she says.

Commerce Insurance changed its mind after Matthews hired her own auto theft expert for an opinion about her Tracker. "[Commerce] would have had a hard time proving anything in court," she says. "We were willing to fight it all the way, and I think that's why the insurance company finally paid the claim."

Commerce would not discuss its auto theft claims-investigation process with Insure.com.

What is an auto theft "expert"?

Most insurance companies use forensic investigators — men and women who have experience in evidence gathering and examination — as their auto theft experts when a stolen car has been recovered. The investigators examine steering columns, ignition lock cylinders, causes and origins of fires, and the overall condition of vehicles in order to formulate an opinion that will "bring about prompt, equitable resolutions to policyholder claims," as Progressive Insurance Co. spokesperson Donna Marquard puts it.

Often, forensic investigators are certified by the American Board of Forensics Examiners (ABFE), a trade group that has about 7,100 members and is part of the American College of Forensics Examiners (ACFE), founded in 1992. Currently, to become an ABFE-certified forensics examiner, applicants must pass a three-part multiple-choice exam that covers all aspects of forensics investigation.

Insurance companies also look for forensics investigators to have experience in locksmithing, fire investigation, and law enforcement. Most forensics investigators are not employees of the insurance companies, although some insurers do conduct their own in-house investigations.

"If [an expert] gives me any information, I'm going to rely on it."

Forensics investigators' opinions are highly regarded by insurance company claims adjusters (those folks who decide whether or not to pay your claim) and their opinions are often considered "expert" in a court of law (more on that later). "I've gone through the [expert]-selection process myself," says Glen Wheeler, a claim consultant with State Farm Insurance Co.'s Special Investigative Unit (SIU) — the investigative branch of the insurance company in Bloomington, Ill. "If [an expert] gives me any information, I'm going to rely on it," he says.

What insurance companies look for

In some stolen-vehicle cases, the vehicle is never recovered and the policyholder will make a claim on his or her comprehensive auto insurance in order to recover the loss. However, there are many stolen vehicles that are recovered and insurance companies will inspect the recovered car to try to determine what happened: Was the vehicle broken into? Was it driven from the scene? Was the policyholder involved in the theft?

After a vehicle is found, insurance companies generally will have it towed to a salvage yard to await examination. An insurance claims adjuster might do the initial examination of the vehicle or the adjuster might call in the auto theft experts — forensics examination firms — to do the exam. The claims adjuster likely will not inform the investigation firm that the requested examination is for a stolen vehicle, so that the investigator's exam remains as unbiased as possible.

However, the insurance company will request certain special examinations. For instance, in addition to an overall inspection of the physical condition of the vehicle, an insurance company might want to know the condition of the steering column — a part of the vehicle that can reveal much about whether the auto was stolen. An insurance company might also request an examination of the ignition-lock cylinder (where you insert the key to start the vehicle) to determine the last key used or to identify signs of lock picking.

Big problems with insurance company auto theft experts?

The U.S. Supreme Court has clarified the necessary qualifications to be considered an expert in civil or criminal proceedings. In William Daubert, et al, vs. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals Inc., decided June 28, 1993, the high court held that experts, in order to be reliable, should prove the methodology they use to reach their opinions can demonstrate reliability under testing of scientific validity, peer review, testing for acceptable error rates, and credibility testing — whether or not the expert's method is generally accepted in his or her field.

Auto theft investigators often are qualified as experts in court proceedings. However, since the investigators aren't necessarily degree-holding scientists, one of the big questions about them is how well their testimony stands up to the four Supreme Court tests.

"You know an investigator is dancing when you ask him a question and he gives you his resume."

"There are a lot of good investigators out there," says John Machnicki, director of The Travelers' Engineering and Loss Prevention Laboratory located in Windsor, Conn., where auto theft claims are investigated. "But more bad ones than good. There are experts out there who will lie and stretch the truth to get money." Experts routinely charge $1,000 a day when testifying in court. Machnicki says that the best experts can give you answers to your questions based on their knowledge and experience, but he is wary of those experts who rely too much on their "credentials." "You know an investigator is dancing when you ask him a question and he gives you his resume."

Experience

Unlike claims adjusters, who have to pass a state licensing examination in order to receive their credentials, forensics investigators are unregulated. The ACFE did not require an examination in order to receive credentials until 1997. Since then, only 211 people have taken the exam and earned their certification. Thus, of the over 7,100 members of the ACFE's forensics examiners board, 6,900 have bought their credentials rather than earned them.

In addition, the ACFE does not officially stand by any of its members' opinions. In a document explaining the ACFE, the group states, "ACFE does not endorse, guarantee, or warrant the work the work or opinions of any individual members. Membership does not imply licensing by the organization of a member's qualifications, abilities, or expertise. ACFE does not declare anyone an 'expert.' "

Investigations and conclusions

Forensics investigators are supposed to follow the scientific method of evidence gathering and examination in their cases. The scientific method includes making and noting general observations, maintaining a chain of evidence (such as explicitly labeling and noting each piece of evidence), and formulating conclusions based on observations and the evidence. But does this happen in practice?

Continue to page 2: Specific cases of questionable expert conclusions

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