THE INCREDIBLE DECEPTION

| Author: Ray Ashton [member (F2016)] | Filed under: Case Studies
THE INCREDIBLE DECEPTION


This report relates to one of many incidents that took place in Greece during my 17 years based in Athens, dealing with Marine insurance claims and investigations.

This case commenced several years after my initial involvement with the subject vessel.

HISTORICAL

The vessel concerned in this investigation was a 22-metre-long motor yacht. It first came to my attention some years before; when there was an insurance claim after the yacht had sunk in deep water off a Greek island. The vessel was recovered and towed to a mainland shipyard whereupon following inspection it was declared a total loss.

For technical reasons the owner of the yacht, who was insured with a UK company for GBP £175,000, settled the claim for an agreed sum on an unrepaired damage basis.

The vessel’s ownership was consequently transferred to the salvage company who then subjected the vessel to a basic repair and refurbishing programme. The repairs involved the re-designing of certain areas of the bridge and accommodation. The quality of the materials used was well below acceptable marine standards, although in the beginning (and from a distance) appeared cosmetically impressive. At some point following repairs the vessel was laid up afloat in an inner harbour in dockland Piraeus, Greece, and as I understand it was never used operationally.

A few years later, the yacht was struck by another vessel whilst moored. It was holed and sank at its berth. The vessel was refloated, the hull was patched, and it was laid up afloat pending the outcome of a further marine claim.

NEW DEVELOPMENTS

Several years later, I received a message from a UK yacht broker whom I knew quite well. Turned out this company had built the subject yacht originally and requested me to trace it. They were aware that I had had dealings with this vessel in the past. The client explained that a customer of theirs, who was related to the original owners of the yacht, was interested in purchasing it for sentimental reasons.

Enquiries were instigated to trace the vessel and investigate the possibility of purchase for the client. My local sources revealed that the vessel was laid up afloat in a nearby marina and that it was up for sale on an “as is, where is” basis with an initial asking price of US$ 50,000. That was later increased to US$ 80,000. I agreed with my sources that I would act as the prospective buyer’s surveyor, in the event, that he was interested in purchase.

Arrangements were made for the prospective purchaser, who will be known as Tom, to fly to Greece. Shortly before his departure from the United Kingdom my sources informed me that the vessel had been taken off the market, due to some dubious dealings that they were unable/unwilling to elaborate on. I informed Tom of these developments, however he was adamant that he should at least see the vessel for himself, to relate his findings to his family.

Tom arrived in Greece where I met him at the airport. The next morning, we both attended unannounced at the vessels berth in the marina. Whilst there that first morning we met a man onboard the vessel. He introduced himself as the skipper and gave his name as Panos. We explained the reason for our visit, that Tom required to see the vessel which had been in his family’s possession during its early years, also if it was for sale for a reasonable price, then he would be interested in negotiating its purchase.

The skipper was unable to supply details of the owner, merely stating that he thought it was an Italian national. We were allowed onboard the vessel and following examination a video tape and photographs were subsequently produced.

During that visit we remained onboard the vessel for an approximate 30 minutes, throughout which time we examined both the exterior deck and interior accommodation areas, apart from the engine room, although we did sight the top area of the main engines through the starboard engine room entrance hatch.
Having photographed the exterior of the vessel and video-taped both the interior and the exterior, we departed explaining that we would be returning the following day. Tom however, returned to the yacht the following day on his own and took further video footage of the vessel’s exterior.

Tom later related to me that during his attendance he met another person onboard who had introduced himself as the owner’s representative. This person was shown on the video tape and was identified by myself and my staff, as being a local crook - whose name we knew well, but he had introduced himself to Tom under a false name. Tom advised the gentleman that he was willing to offer approximately GBP £20,000 for the vessel on the understanding that the main engines were in some form of serviceable condition. The representative responded that the vessel was not for sale and no useful information was provided as to the identity of the beneficial owner. Tom then returned to the UK.

During my attendance on a professional basis for and on behalf of Tom, I had the opportunity to carefully examine both the interior and the exterior of the vessel. It was obvious to both of us from the outset that the vessel could at best be described as a derelict hull in an appalling state of repair.

In addition, the hull below the waterline was seriously contaminated with what appeared to have been many years of severe growth and this was evident from the surface. The vessel bore a pungent odour throughout and in our opinion could not possibly be inhabited in its current condition.

GENERAL

During our joint visit, the vessels name “POPEYE” was displayed on both sides of the aft superstructure located in glass apertures with concealed lighting. During Tom’s attendance the following day, he witnessed the skipper breaking the name apertures with a hammer and placing a different name in adhesive lettering on the stern transom. During this time the skipper also hoisted the courtesy Greek flag on the mast and draped the American flag over the aft section of the boat deck, which suggested the yacht was registered somewhere in North America.

During Tom’s visit to the vessel, many photographs together with a video tape were taken and eventually processed in the UK. A meeting was arranged by us during his attendance in Greece with another surveyor, who had dealt with a claim on the vessel following our initial claim. The surveyor provided a series of photographs to Tom for sentimental purposes. Such photographs related to the vessel’s second sinking and subsequent salvage. The photographs were date stamped and were carefully studied. I provided a comparison set of photographs by which we compared the condition of the vessel after the initial sinking to those sighted following the second sinking.

From this comparison it could clearly be seen that the vessel’s condition was much the same after the first sinking as it was after the second. This was positively determined by certain indisputable features that appeared in both sets of photographs.

THE FRAUD

About four months after I had inspected the vessel with Tom, another local marine surveyor that I knew quite well, called me. He said he had been instructed by the owners of the vessel to act on their behalf in an insurance claim against an American insurance company that I knew well, having dealt with claims on their behalf over a number of years. The claim he was representing involved a fire on the vessel which he stated had rendered it a total loss. He advised that another local company had been instructed by the Underwriters to handle the claim on their behalf.

The surveyor asked me whether I knew anything about the vessel and its previous history. The vessel’s name at this time was “Gold Finger” and it had been insured by the American company for twelve months in the sum of US$ 500K. The surveyor provided current photographs of the vessel which had purportedly been taken by a local Greek surveyor of dubious reputation. These had been attached to a condition and valuation report prepared and signed by the surveyor, valuing the vessel at US$ 500K at that time. That report had been provided to the American underwriters and had as I understood it, formed part of the basis of the insurance contract. The photographs depicted a vessel in good condition, clean, well decorated and obviously operational since one of the photographs showed the vessel at sea in what appeared to be excellent condition with passengers onboard.

It was immediately obvious to me that although this was the same vessel, these photographs could not possibly relate to its current condition. I deduced that these photographs either related to the vessel many years previously when it was in genuinely good condition, or the photographs had been digitally altered and enhanced. It was also obvious that the condition and valuation report did not truly reflect the condition of the vessel as it was at the time stated. The value put forward was grossly exaggerated considering that when we had inspected the vessel months before, our sources stated that the vessel was for sale initially in the sum of US$ 50,000 and later increased to US$ 80,000, which of course formed the basis of Tom’s involvement.

I had advised at that time that had the main engines been serviceable, which I had doubted, the vessel would have been valued on the Greek market in the region of between US$ 50,000 and US$ 70,000. Had the engines been unserviceable, the value in my opinion would have decreased by 50%.

In view of this information and the fact that at that time we as a company were frequently instructed by the American underwriters, I telephoned the claims manager and explained the situation.

He instructed me to deal with the matter and advised his other appointed surveyors to withdraw from the case. The claims manager said he had received a copy of the condition and valuation report together with photographs and that this had formed part of the basis of the insurance contract. He also advised that following the fire loss, a claim had been presented to him by the owners’ representative known to him as the man who had changed names during Tom’s visit.

I spoke to Tom in the UK and enquired if he still possessed the photographs and video of the vessel which were taken prior to the alleged fire claim. He said he did and was willing to assist. Tom provided me with copies of photographs and a copy of the video tape.

Sometime after this, I arranged with the Greek insurance broker and the Greek surveyor to view the photographs and video in my Greek office. The photographs and video were then provided to the Underwriters’ representative lawyers in Greece who in turn passed them to the Underwriters in America. The claim was then rejected on the grounds of fraud by misrepresentation of material facts and the owner’s representative was advised of this.

A month or so later, I received documentation from the Underwriters’ lawyers relating to expenses and quotations for superficial work to the vessel purported to have been effected prior to the alleged fire. These documents had been presented to our lawyers by the owners to account for expenditure on the vessel. The accounts amounted to approximately GBP £1,500 in total of which about GBP £400 related to diesel fuel purportedly taken onboard just prior to the fire. A final quotation had been produced by local engineers for proposed repairs to the machinery in the approximate sum of GBP 6,500. There was no evidence to support that the work had been completed. These were mere made up quotations backdated. A number of certificates were produced which included a current seaworthiness and fire fighting certificate issued in the vessel’s former name, which turned out to be counterfeit.

The true situation was that at the time that these certificates were purportedly issued, the vessel was unseaworthy and a mere hulk. This was abundantly plain from the photographic evidence and the information I had gathered. In addition, the vessel was not previously named as presented and the name “POPEYE” was only being attached in Tom’s presence prior to the alleged fire.

I later received a telephone call from a man who purported to be a representative of the vessel’s owner’s. He requested a meeting with me as he wished to discuss the case, suspecting that we had some form of involvement in the matter. A meeting was later held in a cafe in Athens. He introduced himself to us by his name and explained that he was the representative of the Italian owners who had purchased the vessel from the previous owners a year or so ago. He told us that he had been involved in the refurbishing of the vessel prior to the casualty and was now dealing with the casualty on behalf of the owner. This we of course knew to be untrue.

The representative stated that the vessel was seaworthy and general tidying up had been effected prior to the survey report, presented by a very reputable surveyor who had pronounced the vessel seaworthy. Of course, we knew how disreputable the other surveyor was. The vessel had been at the same berth, for some considerable time, where it had been stripped in readiness for refurbishing. He stated that refurbishing work was commenced a few months before the fire and the vessel was in very good condition, pending attendance in the boatyard for hull maintenance at the time that it caught fire and sank.

Following the provision of other insignificant information, he stated that everything appeared to have been going in the right direction with the claim when he was informed by the American Underwriter’s surveyors that they had been requested to close their file on the matter.

After contact with the broker, the owner’s surveyor and a few other people, the representative said he realized that something was seriously wrong and that someone was out to do them no good. He did not know where this information had come from or the extent of the information, however he feared that Underwriters had been supplied with photographs and a video showing the vessel’s condition some months prior which he explained would have given the wrong impression as it was after this date that the vessel underwent major repairs. This of course was untrue as we saw the vessel after it had been insured and just before the fire and it was totally evident by now that this man was a serious fraudster.

We did not supply any information to him, other than to suggest that perhaps Tom who attended some months prior and who took photographs and a video tape of the vessel, may have supplied same to the Underwriters.

The representative ended the meeting by making underhand, indirect threats and alternative proposals should we be interested in assisting with the matter. (In other words, he indicated that whoever was responsible would pay for this misguided information and he also indicated that should we co-operate we would be well rewarded.) We informed him that we were not interested in being of assistance and the meeting was terminated.

FINAL RESULT

In simple terms the vessel owner had committed an elaborate fraud by using old and doctored photographs to depict that the vessel was in good condition. They further reached out to a dishonest surveyor who endorsed the deception by valuing the vessel at an extraordinary price supported by the production of false documents. This allowed the owner to insure the vessel for an inflated value, then set fire to it and claim the insured value.

Had it not been for a coincidental stroke of luck that someone showed interest in the vessel, then photographed and videoed it, the insurance company may have unknowingly paid the value and the fraud would have been successful.

I am pleased to say that the fire claim was not upheld. No further action was taken by the owner against the underwriters, as he was very aware that had he tried to pursue his claim, based on the overwhelming evidence against him, this would surely have lead to a successful criminal prosecution against him for a US$ 500,000.00 fraud.

THERE GOES ANOTHER ONE

This was probably one of the craziest fraudulent insurance claims I have ever come across in the investigation of over 3,500 marine claims in 30 plus years. Crazy because we worked in a close-knit marine community where everyone knew everyone, good or bad. Where we knew most of the 25,000 vessels along the coast and the islands, owners, brokers and insurance personnel alike, yet some still tried it on despite the odds, but always failed. These failed individuals learned nothing in their miserable careers. They always made the fatal mistake of under-estimating others and then when their luck was truly down, they resorted to their only other card, which was threats and bribery.

Article submitted by Full member F/2016 – Ray Ashton. For further info see: www.phoenix-maritime.com or contact: ra@phoenix-maritime.com

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