When Alarm Bells Ring: How Forensic Fire Investigators Uncover Arson Fraud

MIKE WISEKAL, MSC, IAAI-CFI, IAAI-FIT, ASC, MIAAI, MIFIREE, DIPLOMA MARINE ACCIDENT INVESTIGATION

Forensic investigators can shed light on possible arson fraud - knowing how to approach the investigation is key.

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Arson fraud – a type of insurance fraud involving the willful and malicious burning of property for the purpose of collecting insurance money. Arson Fraud continues to be a significant issue for the insurance industry. Recognition of warning signs and taking prompt action are crucial to identifying arson fraud and obtaining the evidence needed to repudiate fraudulent insurance claims. Since the success of the repudiation will rest on the weight of the presented evidence, preserving and recording a potential arson scene is paramount.

A forensic investigator with expertise in interpreting fire scenes can add to the weight of evidence when pursuing a repudiation against arson fraud.

Forensic arson investigators can respond quickly to a scene to record and recover any potential supportive evidence. They use their keen eye to observe indicators of arson fraud which are then communicated to the insurer, claims handler, or loss adjuster. Investigators typically look at the following areas for indicators of arson fraud: property, combustion, circumstances, and fire protection.

Property

An astute forensic investigator first examines the scene for indicators that support intentional fire spread. This might include signs of fire doors being held open, deliberately made holes in walls, ceilings and floors, evidence of forced entry, or indications that the culprit intentionally obstructed emergency service responders’ access.

Combustion

A forensic analysis of the scene must also consider the materials involved in the fire and any signs of unusual rapid fire development or unnatural fire spread. The presence of ignitable liquids and incendiary devices, items piled up to assist the spread of fire, or fires originating in locations without an accidental ignition source can all be supportive indicators of arson fraud.

Circumstances

Suspicious circumstances can raise additional red flags during a fire investigation. There may be indications that valuable items had been removed before the fire, possibly replaced with lesser value items, and that fire-damaged remains do not match items claimed as lost in the fire. Additionally, investigators look for signs of the fire being concentrated on financial documents or occurring during a renovation or property sale.

Unusual claimant behaviours also can be a clear warning sign that the insurer is being defrauded. Some behaviours that might indicate arson fraud include refusal or inability to answer routine questions, insisting on a fast settlement, expressing rehearsed knowledge, or inquiring about hypothetical fire or claim scenarios.

Fire Protection

Fire protection systems provide early warning to occupants in the event of a fire and can assist in a fire investigation by supplying data related to the origin and discovery of the fire. However, when these systems are disabled, deactivated or damaged, the investigator should be cautious that fraudulent behaviour is involved. Investigators specifically look for suspicious alterations made to fire detection, security systems, fixed firefighting systems, portable fire extinguishers, or CCTV cameras.

Responding to Arson Fraud

While insurers have the right to protect themselves against arson fraud and uphold the policy conditions against fraudulent claims, they are also legally bound to bring forward the case against the insured and present proof of arson fraud.

Forensic fire investigators can significantly increase the prospects for a successful determination of the fraud. Investigators respond quickly to the scene to look for any indications of arson fraud and record and recover any potential supportive evidence that will prove the claimant intended to gain from or cause loss to another.

When those alarm bells do sound, promptly involving a forensic arson investigator can greatly increase the prospects for a successful determination of arson fraud.

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About the author

Mike Wisekal
Mike has been in fire industry since 1997, serving nearly 18 years in the Fire Service.
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