Ed Langford sits low in the seat of his white pickup truck. His visor is pulled down. A video camera is cradled carefully in his hand.
Wearing a black button-up shirt and dark sunglasses, he dressed on purpose to blend in with the scenery, though he didn't know where the call of duty that day would take him.
An insurance company is paying Langford, a private investigator, to follow a man who is drawing workers compensation checks after claiming he hurt his back at work.
On this mid-June day, Langford watched him leave a doctor's appointment in West Ashley and drive to a downtown Charleston restaurant for several hours. The PI's wife and business partner, Laurie, sits in a sport-utility vehicle that's parked out of sight a few blocks away, listening to him speak through a black device planted in his ear.
"It isn't like he's going to work," he remarks of the man he is tailing.
The Langfords, both retired New York City police officers, say they're increasingly asked to run surveillance on people who are trying to extract money from insurance companies. Representatives are referring an increasing number of suspicious cases to insurance fraud watchdog agencies, while national numbers show that certain types of suspicious insurance activity have fluctuated since the economic downtown began.
While there's no definitive study to link the economic recession to insurance fraud, certain types of claims are rising as other forms of income, from stock dividends to paychecks, are drying up. And the trend is creating more work for the parties who work together to fight insurance fraud.
"Law enforcement, the attorney general's office, insurance companies. Though everyone should have a vested interest in insurance fraud because we all end up paying for it," said Russ Dubisky, executive director for the S.C. Insurance News Service, a Columbia-based industry-funded nonprofit that provides information to consumers.
Insurance fraud ranges from a rogue insurance agent who pockets a customer's monthly premium check to a renter who inflates the cost of stolen property to highly organized rings that stage automobile accidents.
"It could also be as simple as lying about how many miles you drive to work in the morning," Dubisky said, citing figures from S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster's office that estimate 10 percent of all auto, home and business insurance claims are either fraudulent or highly inflated.
Those types of insurance cost more than $85 billion a year, spreading an extra cost of $1,030 per year to the average household.
"If insurance fraud was a business, it would be a top Fortune 500 company," the A.G.'s website states.
Fraud is not necessarily up across the board, despite the tough economic times.
Broad industry data hints at how the recession has shifted behaviors. Consumers are increasingly falling for health insurance scams as they lose their employer-affiliated coverage after a job loss. At the same time, workers compensation claims have eased, presumably because fewer people have jobs and are ineligible for such payments.
In mid-2009, the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, a Washington, D.C.-based group of insurance companies and consumer advocate groups, sent a survey out to state insurance fraud bureaus to gauge how the recession was affecting potential fraudulent claims. The results concluded that the economic conditions appeared to have "a significant impact on the incidence of fraud."
The survey pointed to higher rates of suspected insurance fraud among agents, exaggerated and false auto insurance claims, and false liability claims, such as so-called slip-and-fall incidents.
South Carolina's questionable claims figure grew 17 percent to 834 cases between 2007 to 2009, according to the S.C. Insurance News Service.
At the national level, the number of potential fraud cases continued to rise throughout the first half of the year. Figures released last week by the Illinois-based National Insurance Crime Bureau show a 14 percent increase in questionable claims of the year in four of the six categories the agency tracks.
Major insurers have referred a growing number of suspicious claims to the National Insurance Crime Bureau during the last three years, though bureau spokesman Frank Scafidi said that might be because company adjusters are being more cautious.
"There are examples, but it's not the kind of national hand-wringing, the-sky-is-falling situation that (the national media) would have you think," Scafidi said.
He said that establishing a concrete link between the recession to insurance fraud is difficult. It would require an admission among offenders that they acted based on their shaky economic situation, Scafidi said.
Also, even in good economic times, a cash-strapped person who falls inside a retail store or a homeowner whose property has sustained damage are tempted to pad claims.
Perhaps the state's largest staged-accident fraud ring was uncovered two years ago in Walterboro.
A particularly attentive office manager within the Colleton County Fire and Rescue department noticed that some of the same drivers were reporting injuries from wrecks that had occurred during the prior two years. State investigators got involved, and more than 30 people were eventually convicted in connection with the scheme.
Nationally, reported incidences of suspected organized insurance fraud cases grew 65 percent to 1,837 cases during the first six months of 2010 compared to the same period in 2008, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
That's where the plainly dressed Langfords can step in.
As a high-dollar insurance case nears a trial, a claims adjuster might ask the Langfords to watch an accident victim to see if his injuries are legitimate.
Ed Langford once caught an allegedly injured car accident victim surfing at Folly Beach. Laurie Langford once filmed a woman tossing a neck brace into the back seat of her car after leaving a doctor's appointment.
Usually Macy the Rottweiller accompanies Laurie, patrolling over her shoulder and willing to protect her in case of an angry confrontation. The couple's other dog, a yellow Labrador retriever named Reggie, proved far less useful after sleeping through a tense showdown that took place after a subject realized he was being followed.
In the business, getting discovered is called "getting made," Ed Langford explains.
That wouldn't happen on the recent sweltering summer day outside the downtown Charleston restaurant.
Ed Langford watches his subject bend over to remove an object that was attached to an ankle. The man then unstrapped something around his waist before heading inside the building.
A few days earlier, Langford saw the man, who has a well-paying job in the transportation industry, shoveling gardening material that had been loaded onto the back of a truck.
He speaks in a low voice into a recorder, reminding himself to report the activity back to the insurance company.
Reach Katy Stech at 937-5549 or email@example.com.