You're in Grabby Hands

Allstate doesn't need much evidence to accuse their own customers of arson and fraud ... and save themselves a few thousand bucks

On March 7, after a long evening spent recording music with a friend, Tim and Kelly Mead got home around 2:30 a.m. An unfamiliar Chevy was parked in front of their South City bungalow, so they parked their '88 Plymouth Grand Fury -- a "cream puff" with 60,000 miles that had belonged to Kelly's grandfather -- across the street.

Five or six hours later, Tim dragged himself out of bed, because another friend was going to help him work on the Fury's brakes. He went outside and -- the car was gone.

That afternoon, the police found it several blocks away, parked by Volpi Salami on the Hill. A deliberately set fire had burned up the interior. There was a hole where the trunk lock had been. And Tim's music equipment -- a guitar effects processor, eight-channel mixing board, drum machine, two speakers, four microphones, five cables, some tools and mike stands -- was gone.

The Meads only had liability insurance on the car, so it was a total loss. But their homeowner's insurance -- also with Allstate -- should have covered the equipment. They filed a claim and started visiting pawnshops every Saturday, hoping that a piece of the equipment would turn up. The police didn't hold out much hope of solving the crime, because car thefts and burnings are common, often random and impossible to trace.

The Meads dug up old receipts and went through guitar magazines, estimating the replacement cost of the equipment at $4,285.82 (before their $500 deductible). They took examinations under oath. They later offered to take a polygraph but got no response.

On Nov. 4, Allstate wrote to "respectfully reject your proof of loss and deny your claim" -- and went on to accuse the Meads of arson and fraud.

"The first thing I did when I read that letter was throw up," recalls Kelly. She's filing a formal appeal and consulting the Missouri Department of Insurance and the Missouri Bar Association. Tim -- who was ready to give up months ago, when Allstate asked them to produce everything from grocery receipts to cable bills -- is now mad on principle. "What surprises me is that they are not saying, 'Well, because you did not have a special rider on your policy,' or, 'Because your homeowner's does not include this.' That would be normal insurance stuff, and we'd let it die. But I can't believe they would accuse us of a crime. I'm concerned that I'm being smeared somehow."

The police didn't charge the Meads; neither did the fire department accuse them. So Allstate must know something the authorities don't. But when the Meads asked for details, they were told the reasons were all in that Nov. 4 letter.

"Investigation into the facts and circumstances surrounding your claim has led to a reasonable belief and conclusion that the fire at issue was intentionally set by you, at your direction, or with your knowledge or consent," the letter states. As if that weren't enough, it also discloses "a reasonable belief and conclusion that you have intentionally concealed and/or misrepresented material facts and/or circumstances" and "made false statements in this investigation at your examination under oath and otherwise." The clincher: "You have failed to cooperate with the investigation of your claim as required by the policy of insurance."

Granted, insurance companies are forced to suspect everyone, and their suspicions are often justified. But Tim and Kelly Mead have steady jobs (she's a biotech-laboratory worker at Washington University; he supervises the mailroom at MagneTek and plays guitar with a couple of local bands when he's not in computer classes). Their employers readily vouch for their integrity. They have three daughters in gifted programs. They don't have criminal records. "Tim has two tickets, I have one -- that's the extent of our criminal behavior," Kelly says wryly. Their only past claim with Allstate was a small one: Kelly went past "off" and turned the stove up to "high," boiling away all the chicken-and-dumpling water and causing a near-fire whose chicken-protein smoke messed up their walls. Allstate paid a cleaning company, and Kelly says she even called the adjuster over because she was worried they'd been overcharged, because she'd done most of the cleaning herself.

The Meads' record is, in short, far better than Allstate's. In just the past five months, a California court has found they wrongfully refused to pay an earthquake claim; the Indiana Department of Insurance has accused them of unfair claim settlement; a Connecticut lawsuit has charged them with unfair practices, citing a flyer encouraging people to settle their claims before consulting an attorney; and 20/20 has featured them in an investigative report.

But let's ignore the history and assume the worst: The Meads hated the Fury (which they were carefully keeping smoke-free for their asthmatic 16-year-old) and coveted a new car. They figured the money they'd get for the equipment would more than make up for the loss of the car and the cost to tow it off the lot where it was burned. So they stealthily sold a miscellany of tools and music equipment, some of it old, to scam the estimated $3,785.82 replacement value.

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