Avoid insurance fraud by learning how to spot common tactics used by agent imposters, or ghost brokers
The internet is a wonderful tool. Not only does it place a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips, it allows us to find, reach out to, and connect with people that we might otherwise have a hard time finding. When it comes to the world of insurance, this means that you can get in touch with an independent agent who can help you find an insurance policy that's right for you.
But as with all things, there is a dark side to the internet and there are those who use it to exploit and scam. These scammers have become quite adept at what they do, and it can be incredibly difficult to tell the difference between an honest broker and a ne'er-do-well.
Fortunately, with a little bit of information, you can learn what to look for and avoid insurance scams online. Today, we'll take a look at some of the common tactics used by agent imposters and show you how you can spot and avoid insurance scams. Read on!
How imposter agent scams work
Unfortunately, there are many different types of scams or frauds that criminals run to try to take your money. Some attempt to gather your personal information so that they can use it to take out loans, open credit cards, or even sign up for a mortgage
. Others use complex software to steal valuable financial information so that they can get the digital keys to your virtual coffers. Although these are certainly serious threats, you can largely protect yourself by being cautious with personal data
and by using security tactics like two-factor authentication
and safe password management.
However, some scams can't be avoided by simply locking your accounts behind secure passwords
. Fraudulent insurance agents, sometimes referred to as "ghost brokers" or "ghost agents," don't attempt to steal your personal information to gain access to your finances. Instead, they pretend to be a legitimate insurance agent and attempt to take your money by selling you a fake insurance policy.
With the popularity of social media, group chat and online messaging chat rooms on social media have become targets for these scammers. On social media, they can remain anonymous, but appear to be a real, honest broker. But social media isn't the only place they target. They may also place ads on websites or post on bulletin sites, such as Craigslist, hoping that you'll take them up on their "offer" and reach out to them by email.
These scammers know that in order to start the conversation, they have to appear to be a legitimate insurance agent. They may create a fake insurance agency, or even claim to represent a real agency. Whether they haunt a social media group or a bulletin board, they often lure their targets by advertising amazing coverage for a disproportionately low premium; an offer that appears too good to be true.
Once they are in contact with an interested party, the scam continues, usually through email. Using a fake email address designed to mimic a real agency email address, they'll send realistic-looking documents, perhaps quoting different coverages or carriers. These documents may even use an agency or insurance carrier's letterhead and the email signature might have a convincing email signature. These are all masks, so to speak; a digital costume they use to convince people of their authenticity.
If their target decides to "purchase" a policy, the imposter will then ask for payment. They typically ask for cash or money orders to be mailed, but it is certainly possible for them to use an electronic funds transfer method or even a digital wallet app, like PayPal or Venmo
After they have the payment, and have effectively stolen the money, they might continue the ruse to make the transaction appear as real as possible. They frequently send all of the documents you would expect to have after purchasing a new insurance policy, such as a declarations page or proof of insurance cards. The longer they are able to go without being discovered, the more difficult it becomes to track them down in the future. Unfortunately, in many cases a victim doesn't learn that they have been sold a fake policy until they file a claim.
How to spot agent imposters and avoid insurance scams
Insurance fraudsters go to great lengths to deceive their victims, but they are far from perfect. By staying alert and learning what to watch out for, you can arm yourself with the knowledge you need to protect yourself from this type of insurance fraud.
Red flags: Signs of fraudulent activity
On the surface, a fraudulent agent may look like any other agent you've interacted with in the past. However, there are a number of subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) queues you can look for to help you spot a potential fake.
The following are some of the more common red flags you should look for to help you spot an imposter agent:
Too good to be true
. As the saying goes, if something seems too good to be true, it probably isn't true. This doesn't mean that there aren't great deals out there, or that every low price is a scam, but it's important to do a little research beforehand to see what other carriers are quoting. If someone is quoting a price that is substantially lower than anything else you've found, make sure to investigate further and be on the lookout for any other suspicious signs.
A fraudulent insurance agent may insist on cash as a form of payment, although some may accept transfers through mobile cash-transfer apps or digital wallets. A legitimate agent should be able to take payments a number of different ways, and they shouldn't pressure you into using one or the other.
Strange email addresses
. Watch for email addresses that use a free service, such as Gmail (email@example.com). There is nothing inherently wrong with free email services, but because they are free and open to everyone, scammers often use them to create new throwaway addresses for a scam. Again, someone using a free email service doesn't automatically mean they're a fraud, but it could indicate a scam if it shows up with several other indicators.
Inconsistencies in documents.
If documents are sent at some point during your online conversation, make sure to thoroughly inspect them for strange inconsistencies or inaccuracies. This could be the way a date is written (7/1/2021 vs 1/7/2021), strange word choices, or regular mistakes in grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
Lack of digital presence
. These days, it is hard for a business to be invisible on the internet. Even small businesses create websites and social media pages and work with third-party companies to monitor customer reviews. Even if a business hasn't proactively set these up, they might still show up on customer review pages or in a Google search. For this reason, it is out of the ordinary for any agency or agent to be without a digital footprint of some kind.
Lack of physical presence
. More and more, business operate solely online. That having been said, many insurance agencies still have a physical office. In Texas, you are required to have a physical address to register certain types of businesses, so some physical address should be available, even if it's just a mailing address. If you can't seem to find one associated with someone claiming to represent an agency online, it should raise concern.
Incorrect service area.
Some agents and insurance carriers have specific service areas, which means they don't sell policies outside of that area. Before purchasing a policy from an agent, check with the agency and insurance carrier to make sure they are actually able to sell a policy to you.
For example, Germania Insurance (an insurance carrier) only writes within Texas. If you live in New York and an agent is trying to sell you a Germania policy, there's a good chance that it's a fraud.
There are a variety of reasons that imposters usually don't want to talk on the phone and they'll do their best to avoid doing so. While legitimate agents will provide their phone number in as many places as possible, such as their website, social page, or in their email signature, an imposter very well may not. Be cautious if someone does list a number but never answers or insists on speaking through chat or email.
If you do see a phone number listed, be wary if it has an area code that is out of state. Of course, personal numbers can easily be out of state, but business numbers are usually in-state.
Lastly, be cautious if an agent gives you a phone number that doesn't match those listed on an agency's social page, website, or business listing.
Sense of urgency.
Creating a sense of urgency, or otherwise rushing a sale, is a common tactic for scam artists of all kinds. They understand that trying to pressure you into making a decision can cause you to overlook suspicious elements, and might prevent you from taking the time to investigate something fishy. For example, you should be suspicious if they tell you that this wonderful discount is only valid if you agree to purchase the policy in that very moment.
Missing a TDI number.
One of the best ways to ensure that the person you're speaking to is a legitimate agent is to ask for and verify their license number. Every state has their own department of insurance
which requires agents to obtain a license to sell. In Texas, this is the Texas Department of Insurance (TDI)
A legitimate agent should make this available to you, or provide it upon request. You can then take that number to the state department's website to verify that they are who they say they are.
It's important to keep in mind that not all of these red flags immediately indicate that this person is a fraud, although some are certainly more telling than others. For example, if someone has an out-of-state area code for their phone number, it could be a personal number that they purchased in the past. However, if they don't have a TDI number, or refuse to give it to you, then it is much more likely that foul play is afoot.
Best practices when looking for an agent online
In addition to keeping an eye out for the red flags listed above, there are a number of tactics you can practice to help you spot and avoid insurance agent imposters.
Be cautious on social media sites or chat apps.
Social media is an amazing way to find and connect with all sorts of people. Unfortunately, that makes it an ideal spot for scammers to operate, too. If you do use social media to look for an insurance agent, make sure that there is a real person behind the account.
Take it offline.
If you meet an agent in a chat room, make sure they have an actual profile page associated with the insurance agency they claim to represent. Only use social media as a way to find potential insurance agents, but conduct the rest of your business conversation outside these and other messaging or chat platforms, preferably on the phone or in person. Be incredibly cautious if an agent refuses to communicate outside of social media, messenger apps, or email.
Verify social media.
It can be difficult to verify whether or not a social media profile is legitimate, but there are a few things you can do to help.
- See how long the account has been active. A newly created account could mean that it was created with the intention of scamming.
- Check their post history. A legitimate agent should have regular posts promoting their business, employees, and their industry. More than likely, these posts should be spread across the lifetime of the account rather than clumped together.
- Check for interaction. A legitimate social profile will show interaction with other people, such as liking, sharing, and posting relevant comments.
- Look for business addresses, phone numbers, and business emails on their social profile. A business profile is meant to help customers connect with employees or owners. It should list a number of different ways to get in contact.
- Check for changes in behavior. If a previously active account has stopped posting recently, or if the style and subject of their comments and posts has changed significantly, this could mean that this account has been hacked. For example, if they used to post educational insurance content and now they are posting nothing but links to "Get rich quick" websites every 30 minutes, something isn't right.
Remember, these are not foolproof; it is possible for an imposter to create a social profile that is difficult to detect, and some legitimate accounts may be hacked for nefarious purposes. For this reason, it is best to use other methods of verification, too.
Compare contact information across platforms.
Even if someone sends you contact information over a social media messaging app, it's important to make sure that it's actually valid. Check their website, social media pages, and any other business listings you can find in order to make sure it all lines up.
For example, if someone claiming to represent an agency sends you an email address over social media, go to that agency's website to see if the email domains match. If the website lists "info@agencyXYZ.com" but the address sent to you earlier is "agencyXYZ@gmail.com" something suspicious might be going on.
When in doubt, pick up the phone
. Scammers usually want to avoid talking on the phone. If they have given you a phone number, or if you've found one on one of their business listings, don't hesitate to call it.
If you call a number that a supposed agent has given you and you don't get a response after numerous attempts, it might not be legitimate.
Call the agency.
Many imposters will disguise themselves as actual agents representing actual agencies. If you notice something suspicious, or simply want to check for good measure, call the agency they claim to represent directly and ask to speak to the agent. When you call, you want to verify that the agent you found online is a current representative of the agency and that they were actually the individual you spoke with online.
For example, let's say you found an agent on a social media group named John Johnson who works for XYZ Insurance. You call XYZ Insurance and they tell you that yes, John Johnson is an agent at their business. However, John Johnson never reaches out to potential customers on social media groups, nor does he have any record of speaking to you.
Or in another scenario, you call XYZ Insurance and they tell you that John Johnson used to be an agent, but hasn't worked there in five years. In both cases, you can be sure that you have been dealing with an imposter.
Always request their license number.
Insurance agents should be happy to give you their official license number, so always ask for it and verify that they are who they say they are, and that they're licensed to sell insurance in your state. Don't sign paperwork or send money until you've confirmed that you're speaking to a real agent that represents a real insurance carrier.
Find an agent through a carrier.
If you already know what insurance provider you want to get a quote from, you can often find an agent or request a quote directly on their website. Going this route ensures that you'll be connected with a legitimate, licensed agent.
Use a local agent.
If you're looking for a more personalized relationship with an insurance provider, working with a local agent is one of the safest ways to avoid dealing with an imposter.
So, does all of this mean that you should avoid shopping for insurance online, or that you should avoid looking for an insurance agent through social media? Absolutely not! The internet, social media, and messaging apps are all amazing communication tools and are a valuable way for you, the customer, to connect with one of the many wonderful agents out there.
However, like many things, there are dangers that we must navigate when using these tools. The goal of this blog is to help you identify and recognize those dangers so that you can safely
use these tools to find a great agent and a great insurance policy.
To find a local Germania Insurance agent you can trust, check out our agent locator or request a quote online!