Faking it for free money


by ANDY PIERROTTI / KVUE News and photojournalist ERIN COKER

Bio | Email | Follow: @AndyP_KVUE


Posted on March 28, 2013 at 10:26 PM

Updated Thursday, Mar 28 at 10:41 PM

AUSTIN -- If it’s privacy you want, you better hope Steve Russo wasn’t hired to find you.

“When you're tailing people, it's real important to keep a safe distance," explained Russo during an interview in Georgetown a few weeks ago.

The Austin private investigator uses cameras hidden in ink pens, trees and binoculars.

He also uses a bionic ear that looks like small satellite. "Just as long as we're in a public setting, like a park or something, and we point it, we can actually listen to people on the phone," explained Russo.

Many of his cases involve insurance fraud. Companies who suspect an employee is faking an injury will hire his firm, Watchful Eye Investigations, to catch them lying.

He recently found two Texas men lying about their injuries after both filed for workers’ compensation.

Both claimed their injuries on the job were so severe, they needed to be in back braces and were bed ridden. Instead, he caught them on camera moving around and bending over. Russo even found one of them riding a motorcycle – apparently pain free.

“I mean, if you've got a hurt back like he said, there's no way you're riding a Harley," contended Russo.

A KVUE Defenders investigation discovered reports of insurance fraud in Texas hit a record last year.

Since 2010, the amount of money involved in false insurance claims more than tripled to nearly $36 million.

The state's most frequent cases include motor vehicles, accounting for nearly a quarter of all insurance fraud reports in Texas.

One alleged fraud case involves a $1 million Bugatti luxury car. An insurance company filed suit against its Houston owner claiming he intentionally crashed the car in the water to collect a $2 million policy in 2009.

Many involve staged accidents. Hidden cameras used by FBI helped catch several people in 2009 rear-ending a vehicle on purpose. The video shows several people then get inside the one of the vehicles. Those passengers then file fake medical claims for neck and back injuries.

“Most of these cases are all about following the money trial," explained Jeff Kirk, chief fraud investigator for the Texas Department of Insurance.

Kirk says video can significantly help settle cases or convict abusers. "Very few of our cases go to trial, but if they do, the video evidence is fantastic,” said Kirk.

According to the FBI, insurance fraud costs Americans more than $40 billion a year. That means the average household pays up to $700 more each year in premiums because of fraud.

"Companies aren't going to just lose money, they are going to pass those losses on to the consumers, and that is certainly going to result in higher premiums for all of us," said Kirk.

While Russo gets paid to catch fake insurance claims, he knows it also costs him money. "Absolutely it frustrates me. I pay. I have to jump through all the hoops, why can't they do it?" said Russo.

Despite the record number of insurance fraud reports in Texas, TDI has not requested any new investigators. The agency says it has shifted resources to give more cases attention, such as workers’ compensation fraud.

If you suspect insurance fraud, contact TDI’s fraud unit.