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Insurance: His Casa Is His Friend's Casa

September 22, 1988|DON G. CAMPBELL

Question: A couple of months ago I found out that a friend of mine is using my address as his address for his car insurance. I live in Ventura County and he lives in Los Angeles County. He says it saves him about $2,000 a year. He has the bills sent to his office address, but with my address listed as his home address.

I am very concerned about this, and I have repeatedly told him not to use my address, but to no avail. I am concerned about whether I have any liability in the event his insurance company finds out about this. Suppose he has a bad accident, and his insurance company or, indeed, the other driver, found out? Is there any way I could be dragged into that kind of legal mess?

I know which insurance company he uses, but I am not sure how I could police him using his own address, short of writing his insurance company a letter. If he switches insurance companies, how would I know that he is using his own address for a change?--H.O.

Answer: As the old saying goes: "With friends like this, who needs enemies?"

The gall of this guy--knowing full well how much you disapprove of what he's doing--is staggering. Does he also borrow your toothbrush? Where is the tit-for-tat here? You're saving him $2,000 a year; what's he doing for you, getting you a discounted L.A. County library card? The really big danger here, according to Tim Dove, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute in Washington, is--happily--with your friend rather than with you.

"If this friend gets into a really serious accident," Dove says, "and there's a big claim involved, then the phony address is going to come out immediately."

There are going to be phone calls, claim forms and all of the other bookkeeping aspects of settling a claim, and at least some of these are going to come to your home, not to his office billing address. Is he expecting you to forward these to him, lie on the phone on his behalf ("He's out right now; can I take a message?") or what?

"There's a very good chance," Dove adds, "that the insurance company, finding out that the home address is a phony, will simply refuse to honor the claim. After all, when this guy filled out the application, he attested to its truthfulness and accuracy when he signed it. By lying on it, the insurance company has every right to take the position that he's abrogated the contract and refuse to honor the claim. It's a major risk this guy is running."

Now, where you fit into this, Dove concedes, "is a gray area. One insurance carrier with whom I discussed it thinks that there is a possibility that you could find yourself in trouble if your friend gets into a bad accident, the insurance company's settlement doesn't satisfy the other driver, and he then decides to come back and seek relief from this innocent middle man. We don't know of this actually having happened, but in a state like California, where about two-thirds of all creative litigation is born anyway, it's always possible."

Problems Unlikely

A Los Angeles-based lawyer, noting that you haven't signed anything--or taken any other action that would make you an active participant in this scam--thinks it's highly unlikely that you could get dragged into it too seriously.

"In other words," he says, "I don't think there's any chance that he could end up facing any criminal liability, but there's an outside chance there could be some civil liability.

"The insurance company, for instance, could sue the insured for fraud and, if they're playing hard-ball, could bring this man into it as a co-conspirator. Maybe it's not too likely, but it's certainly possible."

So far, everyone concedes, your own skirts are fairly clean here because in no way have you helped this clown in his insurance scam--in fact, you've tried to deter him, without any luck. But it could also be another story if a serious claim is filed and you find yourself in the position of forwarding mail to him in the knowledge that a claim, using your address, has been filed.

No one knows how prevalent this scam is, the institute's Dove admits, "but we suspect there's quite a bit of it. And it's a pretty dangerous game."

And the local lawyer adds: "I'm sure that a lot of people think about doing it--I have, myself--and you can probably get away with it for a long time. As long as you don't get into any serious trouble. What do you do, though, when you're called into court to give a deposition and how do you explain this discrepancy in your address? You're trapped."

From both sources, then, comes the same advice: This guy's bald-faced imposition on you has to stop. It's an imposition made doubly offensive by the fact that it so obviously rubs you the wrong way.

"If it comes to it," the lawyer says, "he should go ahead and write the friend's insurance company, but I suspect that just the threat to do this will serve the same purpose.

"It may blow a beautiful friendship, but what kind of a friend is this in the first place?"

And, having threatened him with exposure this way, it's highly unlikely that he would simply change insurance companies and try the same old gambit of using your address, but without telling you about it this time. One way or another, you are going to find out.

Campbell cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to consumer questions of general interest. Write to Consumer VIEWS, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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