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

It's not much of a scam.

Did the Meads fail to cooperate? Kelly says Allstate took a taped phone statement, sent someone out, then sent forms for them to fill out. She says she warned them that she was bogged down with taxes, so it would take a few weeks to get all the receipts, estimates, and so on together. She did so in mid-April. The Meads were told they'd have to submit to examination under oath, at a mutually agreed-on time, but heard nothing further until June 12. Kelly says she was told the paperwork had been buried on the lawyer's desk. When Allstate finally sent a letter, they announced that the exam had been scheduled for early July -- smack in the middle of the Meads' vacation.

They rescheduled for June 18. The day before the exam, they received a letter (the letter is dated June 12, but the envelope is postmarked June 15) directing them to bring years of grocery-store receipts, tax documents,bank statements, credit-card statements, doctor bills, prescriptions, recreation expenses, utility bills and more.continued on next pagecontinued from previous page"I called and said, 'This is an unbelievable list; there's no way I can get all this together by tomorrow,'" recalls Kelly. "We'd already signed papers giving Allstate the right to look into anything they wanted -- they could have accessed any of these records themselves. But when I said that, the adjuster said, 'Why should I put together your claim for you?'"

At this point, Kelly also took the advice of a lawyer friend and asked for a weekend appointment so she and Tim wouldn't have to take time off from work. Then they received a letter from Allstate's lawyer saying, "It is my understanding that you have declined to provide any further assistance in the investigation of this claim."

Meanwhile, Allstate had proposed, once more, an early-July date in the middle of the Meads' announced vacation. Finally, they agreed on July 18. The Meads brought a 10-inch-high stack of documents. (Kelly couldn't produce the grocery receipts; she doesn't save them.)

In August, she says she called to ask, "What next?" and was told Allstate hadn't received their corrected, notarized depositions. She pointed out that Allstate hadn't sent them the depositions; that's why she was calling. When the depositions arrived, the Meads went through them and signed, and mailroom supervisor Tim swears he sent the corrected, notarized copies by Priority Mail the Friday before Labor Day. That time, Allstate said they didn't receive the box. So the process started over again, and this time the Meads sent them UPS Overnight, signature required. Allstate's lawyers, who coordinated the depositions, would have received the box Nov. 4.

That's the date on the letter sent by Allstate's claims office, rejecting the claim. "The agent told me we took too long to send back the paperwork, so we must have been afraid of something," says Kelly, gritting her teeth.

Given that any physical evidence is burned or gone and the authorities filed no suspicions of the Meads, Allstate's "investigation" of fraud must rely pretty heavily on those 60-page depositions. What's in them?

Well, there are discrepancies. Tim, trying for choirboy, said he often tries to park up in their little drive because it seems more secure. Kelly said they never park there. ("There's not really a drive," she explains, "so it looks like you're parking on the grass, and sometimes one of the cars does get parked there and I get really pissed off.") Because Kelly handles all the finances, Tim was a little fuzzy about bills; he didn't even realize that the braces straightening two of their three daughters' teeth are partially covered by insurance. More significantly, they weren't sure which of them actually dialed the police that morning. They say they both ended up talking in turn on the cordless, and Tim walked outside with it to look around more closely.

The most potentially damning point comes toward the end: Four months after an incident he'd already mentally written off, Tim wasn't sure whether he found the bits of curved metal that could've come from the steering column before or after talking to the police. Perhaps that made it look as if he broke the steering column himself?

Allstate's examiner also grilled the Meads about their finances: How much of Kelly's recent student loan was Pell grant? Why did they borrow from Tim's 401(k)? Here, the damning fact was probably the Meads' credit-card debt; in April, when they were preparing to buy a new car, they refinanced their house and borrowed $15,000 from Tim's dad to wipe out almost $20,000 in credit-card debt, the incentive being their need to qualify for an unanticipated car loan. But the alleged "scam" would have contributed a bare fourth of the sum; Kelly's second job at Schnucks adds more. And, had they been that troubled by credit-card debt, wouldn't they have broken the law during all those single-income years in the mid-'90s while Kelly was earning her college degree?

It's hard to say just what Allstate knows or found -- their claims adjuster, Kevin Green, responds to questions with, "I'm not going to say anything about that. You can talk to our attorneys." Attorney Bob Cockerham of Brown & James won't even say what generic kinds of evidence they use to make such assessments: He cites client-attorney privilege and says with finality, "There is nothing we could provide you."

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