CHEATSThree men in their early 20s sit in the corner of the special police task force building in Mapo district, north of the Han River. The three exchange desperate looks as any suspected criminals would who know that judgment day has arrived.
Whispering, one of them is trying to convince the other two to cooperate with the police.
In a deep voice, a police detective says, "Come on guys, this is the best deal you're gonna get." The detective, who is chain-smoking, reminds the young men that time is running out. Another detective is typing a reported dated July 7, 2002.
Sitting in another corner of the three-story station house, a slender man dressed in a shirt with a tie is smiling. Lee Jong-gyu, 38, is with the special investigation unit of Samsung Fire & Marine Insurance. Mr. Lee's firm is responsible for fighting the onslaught of fraudulent insurance claims that have been on the rise constantly, especially after the Asian economic crisis of 1997. Mr. Lee's job is to assist the police in catching insurance cheats.
Mr. Lee briefly talks with the detective, giving him a briefcase that contains the requested case files. The three suspects were brought into the station the night before. They have already confessed, but what Mr. Lee and the police are trying to do is push them to make some telephone calls and have their accomplices turn themselves in.
Calling up 20 suspected accomplices may take some time, but for Mr. Lee four months of work are at stake here. In fraudulent claim cases, it is relatively easy to get a confession from the offenders. Once enough evidence has been gathered Samsung asks the police to bring the offenders in and the cops take it from there. Usually during an interrogation Mr. Lee advises the detectives on how to ask specific questions, since most of them are not familiar with insurance policies and laws. Mr. Lee knows that when separating the offenders and interrogating them, getting a confession is usually not a problem, for someone always cracks under pressure.
While talking to the detective, Mr. Lee's cell phone rings. It's his boss, Park Han-suk, deputy manager of the Samsung unit. Mr. Park wants to know the status of the current case ?No. 20010428-341.
"In a short time we'll have the whole crew," Mr. Lee says assuredly. " I expect the damage to go up a little bit from 170 million won ($140,000) to about 200 million won."
According to Samsung's investigation team, most of this crew of almost two dozen young men created car accidents in the Gangseo, Yangcheon and Bupyeong districts. They ran into cars that had changed lanes illegally, which automatically made the lane-changing cars the offenders. The car that rammed the lane-changer often had several people inside it. The crew members then claimed that all of the passengers were injured. Sometimes the crew created accidents among themselves: They bumped into each other. This "setting up of accidents" became their specialty and marked a pattern for Mr. Lee to focus.
After carefully collecting and analyzing all records, Mr. Lee drew his conclusions and made his request for an investigation by the police last June. As it turned out the crew had created 25 accidents from January 1999 till February of this year.
For Mr. Lee, case No. 20010428-341 is just another routine case in the five years he has been dealing with insurance fraud. Before joining Samsung, Mr. Lee worked as a detective in Anyang, Gyeonggi province, for eight years. Instead of a gun, he now carries a briefcase. He was given case No. 20010428-341 in March from the Samsung insurance headquarters.
Standing outside the Mapo station, Mr. Lee says, "When we first got the call, our personnel at the headquarters pointed out that there might be a case since the same person had requested insurance payouts over and over. That's often a clue that alerts insurance companies."
He says that finding proof is easier than one might think -- especially when one knows what to look for. "Most of these people have no jobs. There is little income or none, but they have insured themselves a lot. It's a classic pattern."
In the afternoon sunshine, Mr. Lee pulls from his briefcase another case, No. 19990811-1200. This case shows another popular ruse used by cheats -- the "family-business." Here, whole families are often involved. In this case, the family members, the investigator says, faked injuries that supposedly occurred inside the house, such as falling down the stairs or slipping in a bathroom.
"Family business" suspects are ingenious, according to Mr. Lee. "In one case, the head of a family earned his insurance payments the right way. But then he figured why not do this more often since it is so easy. In the end, the whole family got involved, including the wife's side. At the end of the day we had 10 family members that had become criminals."
While on the job, Mr. Lee sometimes wonders how people can believe they can get away with something when there are such clear signs they are guilty. His question is understandable, for it is quite unusual for several family members to keep falling down inside the house. He points out that one of the major reasons for the explosive increase of this type of crime is that many people do not recognize it as a crime. The easiness and the fact that others' people money and not necessarily the insurance companies money is being given, have much contributed to this lack of conscientiousness.
Back at the Samsung office in Jongno, Park Han-suk, 47, dressed in a blue suit, is getting ready to go on duty. Mr. Park is scheduled to meet some people who have been bothering Samsung Life & Marine Insurance agents. Apparently, the agents had determined how much insurance money should be paid out, but the receiver of the money was not satisfied with the amount. In short, a Mercedes Benz was struck in the rear by another car. Unfortunately for the driver who bumped into the Mercedes, the other driver was a loan shark who had some "employees" under his command and decided to show his dissatisfaction.
According to Mr. Park, it is also part of the unit's job to meet such people as these who try to intimidate his company's agents in order to squeeze out more money. "Sometimes these people just take off their shirts, show their tattoos and wave around their fists to scare our agents," Mr. Lee says. "So when we talk to them we tell them straight who were are and once they find out that we are former police officers most settle for a payment."
So far, there have been no serious accidents in which members of the unit have been physically hurt, but Mr. Park says that he has heard of agents at other insurance investigating firms who weren't that lucky. "The biggest problem we have is that we don't have any legal investigative powers." This is also the reason why all members of the unit are former police officers so that cooperation with the police is ensured when an investigation takes place. Mr. Park explains that the whole process of investigation is systematic. First, all available material on the insurer is collected. This includes the history of past insurance payments that the person received while information on the current insurance products and the accidents are gathered. After collecting the necessary evidence, the unit requests a criminal investigation to the prosecutor's office and the police. When the investigation starts members of the team assist the police officers in how to approach a case and ask the right questions when they interrogate suspects since most police officers are not familiar with insurance frauds. "There are always records. They tell us everything that we need to know."
At 9 p.m. on July 9, Mr. Lee receives a telephone call. It's from the special police task force. More "bad guys" have been bagged. This time it is an even bigger case, involving about 35 people. Mr. Lee should have been off work three hours ago, but now he will have to go to the police station. He must answer requests from the detectives quickly because suspects usually can only be held for 48 hours. Within that time frame, the police have to get the suspects to confess.
He has strong advice for potential offenders. "Making fraudulent claims is a crime. Just because someone hasn't broken into someone's house does not mean what has happened isn't serious. Cheats should realize that there are people who will find them and punish them."
by Brian Lee