Monday, June 24, 1996
Real and "Victimless" Crime - Is There a Difference?
On the last day of May, feeling cheerful as a lark, my wife went to Lord and Taylor's to buy a dress to wear on our son's graduation in June. In her zippered Dooney and Bourke shoulderbag was a cherished wallet, which our son gave her on Mother's Day, filled with credit cards, cash and family memorabilia. Mission accomplished, she walked South on Fifth Avenue with her shopping bags, stopping at an Au Bon Pain for a cup of coffee. You're right, when she got to the cashier, there was no money - in the few blocks of crowded avenue her zipper had been opened and the wallet was gone. She rushed back to Lord and Taylor's to see whether she had left it in the counter; the saleslady recollected that she had zippered the beautiful wallet back in the purse. Then she called me at the office (a woman at the telephone, unasked, volunteered to give her a quarter. The good hearts of the people of New York!).
Remembering the routine from the times when her wallet was stolen on a 3rd Avenue bus, and when the predecessor purse was lifted at an athletic awards dinner at the Collegiate School five years earlier, I swung into the by now familiar reporting routine, and started calling department stores and credit agencies. By the time I came to reporting the Master Card, substantial damage had already been done; three purchases totalling over $500 had been made at Saks Fifth Avenue before the system automatically shut off her credit and stopped a major purchase, a fur. This was a card that we never use, and the system recognized an unusual pattern.
This is a far cry from the primitive 1985 days, when someone in a music store had picked up the discarded carbon paper from my Master Charge purchase slip, and made two mail order buys. I called them in as phony when the charge card statement arrived, only to be told by a service clerk at the Chemical Bank that they would wait for a third one before cancelling the card. Frustrated, I remember then calling the bank's security, and the woman there stopped the card immediately. I also wrote to the bank's president to complain that their high credit card rates were probably due to losses incurred by lax security. No answer then, but the system is now interactive. I wish I could say the same about American Express - when my son's card, also seldom used, was stolen from his wallet, kept in the desk of his easily accessed dorm room, the obviously non-professional perps (how that word has crept into our language!) had made fifty small purchases - cosmetics, men's clothing from Gap and Banana Republic, women's stockings from cheap stores, even breakfasts - before the bill alerted us to the theft. Professional thieves, such as those on 5th Avenue, make their score in the first hour, I'm told, before the alert victim calls in the theft to the card issuers. A hint to future victims: be quick, call credit card companies first. (By the way, the cops at Midtown Precinct South were busy and would not take my immediate telephone report, asking me to call later. Not that it would have helped.)
This family's history as victims of crime - two muggings/holdups and five pickpocket/card thefts - clearly shows that, despite some successes, such as those claimed by Mayor Giuliani in conquering lifestyle crimes, not enough has been done. And a lot is due to Big Business' willingness to absorb crime losses without going after the "alleged perpetrators," because the silly consumers are gonna absorb the losses anyway. That goes for banks, for credit card companies, for insurers, for stores... the list is endless. And it goes more so for lawyers who abet insurance thieves. The phrase "alleged perpetrators" is indicative of our fear of involvement and of the penalties that a volunteer witness to a crime will incur, the risks of stepping forward, the loss of time and the vilification. Nothing new there, look at apostle Peter.
Another story; a friend's car touched sides slightly with another because his vehicle slid while rolling into a red light during one of the last winter's slippery snowstorms. The drivers exchanged numbers, and soon friend Bill received notice from his insurer that a car damage claim was in process. He accepted the blame (an act of honesty that other insurance claim victims subsequently told him was foolish), in the expectation of a small loss (his car had an estimated $200 dent and scratch). Soon thereafter Bill received a letter from a Staten Island law firm, requesting insurance information because a personal injury claim would also be filed. The letter told Bill not to worry, that the claim would be handled between the lawyers and the insurer and that he would not be involved. That was enough for Bill, and he decided to follow up. It turned out that the other party had claimed a totalled car -because it had been rear-ended! - and had been paid the full value of the old vehicle, over $2000. Now, the personal injury claim was for a phony whiplash injury. Bill very quickly took some pictures of his unrepaired car, submitted the accident report that he had neglected (another mistake - one should be prepared within 10 days, it might have helped the insurer), with full details, to Albany, and copied the insurer. The claims approver was ecstatic - for once she had a good response to a shoddy claim and to the crooked lawyers specializing in crooked claims. No wonder the lawyer wanted Bill to keep out of the picture. But Bill's insurance premium went up anyway.
Why was the insurer so quick to accept the phony claim and pay? Because it was cheaper and easier, and the money paid would come back in Bill's raised premiums. Why was the lawyer willing to submit palpably lying claims? Because he was working on commission, and the lies raised his fee, and there is no real mechanism to punish him when discovered in a lie. The law permits him, nay, invites him, to break the rules, we have left the door open to a roomful of money. The bar association will perhaps slap him on the wrist if Bill should take the time, incur the expenses and the witness risks associated with a complaint. Time and again, lawyers claim the right to use any tactics in the defense of "alleged perpetrators," and consequently have been empowered to commit what Bill views as legally condoned crimes in the pursuit of claims. A witness can be convicted and put in jail for lying under oath, but a lawyer can make a career by lying systematically, and even advertizing his specialty.
The other day while walking on 18th Street, I heard two young men talking of graduate school. One was discouraging the other from a law career, expounding that lawyers were slime, lower than car salesmen (probably a slur on the auto industry). He himself was dropping pre-med and going into accounting, a more reliable profession, since medicine was doomed. It is really sickening that an honorable profession has sunk so low in popular esteem, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of attorneys practice honestly.Perhaps the most damning aspect is the profession's inability and even refusal to police itself, as recently evidenced by the defeat of tort reform legislation, orchestrated by the trial attorney associations in the sacred name of consumerism.
All this leads to what the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud describes as a national fake claims bill of $79.9 Billion in 1994, up 17.4 percent in a year and costing the average family $966.14 in premiums , taxes and higher costs of goods and services. The people who tolerate "victim-less crimes" need to understand that they are the real victims.
In view of society's inability to punish non-capital crimes, pickpockets and muggers, it is no wonder that a vigilante will surface now and then. Even this writer, a person who takes a somewhat more philosophical attitude toward injustices suffered, was tempted, in anger and frustration over what has happened to his wife time and again, to go to Fifth Avenue and somehow lash out, irrationally. Further, in view of society's institutionalized response and condoning of systematic depredations (banks and insurers do not prosecute crooks, lawyers lie), it is no wonder that organized vigilantes, law and order people, militia, freemen and NRA ride through the land . This is what we have brought upon ourselves by adopting the flexible morality of "I'm OK, Jack," and "don't worry, insurance companies have lots of money" (and "taxes are unjust, there's nothing wrong with cheating on them," but that's another country). A friend just came from Israel, where half of the young people on Dizengoff Street in Tel-Aviv carry little Gallils with banana clips across the shoulder, automatics that would sweep the block, and where never a shot is heard. Is that the direction we are heading for?
Wally Dobelis claims that some of his best friends are lawyers and that his lunch companions are all honorable men and women, and that William Shakespeare was overreacting (King Henry VI Part II, Act IV, Scene 2, Line 86).
Further to the history of the Democratic Reform Movement: former City Councilmember Carol Greitzer sends greetings and a correction. She became President of the Village Independent Democrats in 1960, District Leader in 1961, but she never held the office of Secretary in the club.
"To begin with, let's kill all the lawyers," is the line, in case you have mislaid your Bard.