In a time of plagues, of hail crashing out of the sky, of the sky turning through orange to darkness, this is a story about how to avoid another plague.
This plague doesn't get a mention in the bible but it's a modern curse and one every single person affected by the recent catastrophes should beware. That's the plague of storm chasers.
Storm chasers are the rogues of the insurance industry, the toads, if you want to continue the biblical metaphor. Right now, the Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA) is hearing reports of storm chasers - otherwise known as insurance claims managers - offering to represent those victims of catastrophes who've got complaints about insurance companies with AFCA for a fee.
As AFCA Chief Operating Officer Justin Untersteiner revealed on Thursday, these consumers have been charged large sums of money for services that are free for people to use.
"AFCA is completely free and there is absolutely no need for anyone to pay a claims management company to lodge a complaint with us. You don't need a paid third party to help you with a complaint," he says.
Untersteiner is right to be worried. Some days when you Google AFCA, the very first hit that comes up is one from an insurance claims manager.
That's the newest scam - but here's what has happened in the past and continues to happen. AFCA hasn't had any complaints about this happening in the hailstorm. Yet.
I'm about to tell you the story of a storm chaser and what happened to his client.
This guy rocks up to the door of a house in Queensland. It's been badly damaged in a cyclone. And the guy says to the owner, hey, here to help with your insurance.
I haven't spoken to this homeowner but the head of risk and operations at the Insurance Council of Australia, Karl Sullivan, gave me an abbreviated and terrifying version of what happened next.
People who've lived through catastrophic events, like cyclones and bushfires, like that ridiculous hailstorm, are often shell-shocked. They are looking for help. You can understand that. You just feel so desperate and you want your old life back, your old home, the stained glass you loved so much.
So when this guy arrived at the door, he signed up the homeowner on the spot. Made it sound like everything would be OK, that repairs would happen quickly and that the homeowner would not be out of pocket. Everything was OK until it wasn't. When the homeowner got his settlement from the insurance company, the storm chaser turned up wanting his cut. The naive homeowner had been signed up on a mobile at the door of house. Don't be that guy.
Cat Newton doesn't want you to be that victim, Newton, the senior policy officer at the Consumer Action Law Centre, would love you to able to trust the storm chaser but first she has to get the government to do its part. She and her team at the Centre have been desperately lobbying the government to make sure that the same rules which govern insurance companies be extended to insurance claims managers. That means if something goes wrong, consumers could instantly register a complaint with the Australian Financial Complaints Authority.
"We are very concerned about unregulated companies coming in after disasters and trying to earn a crust off people's hardship," says Newton.
But right now, those storm chasers, those insurance claims managers, fall outside AFCA's terrain. Which leaves consumers abandoned and at risk. Until that's fixed, the only people you should be dealing with are your insurance company or your broker. Those folks have rules and if those rules aren't followed, sanctions and fines apply.
Sullivan from ICA knows a lot about storm chasers because he's heard the complaints. Mostly they turn up in the days just after the catastrophe. Sometimes these ratbags even pretend they are from the insurance company. They promise faster and more. Crooks and thieves.
The only people you should be dealing with are your insurance company or your broker.
That's not exactly how Sullivan puts it. He's a more measured person than I could ever be and says some "insurance claims managers" are reputable, with the relevant qualifications and licences. But there's a truckload who aren't. Some of these even ask for money up front to get your insurance claim underway. DO NOT SIGN ANYTHING. Get a solicitor to check any documents put under your nose. Ask your insurer about anyone who says they will do works for you, especially if you think your insurer will eventually be paying for the repairs.
About 15 years ago, a representative of our insurance company came to our house in the wake of a burglary. I was devastated then but furious when the woman came to our house wearing a lanyard which had the word fraud woven into the fabric. Boy did I ring NRMA and give them a gobful. Sullivan tells me that today's industry is very different. I hope he's right. It's good news that the Australian Financial Complaints Authority exists and let's hope it doesn't have much work from this current crop of disasters.
It sucks that there are snakes and toads out there trying to extract money from people whose lives have been devastated but there are, every single time. So we need to ward them off. ASIC's MoneySmart head wrangler Laura Higgins has one really key bit of advice. Do not agree to anything on the spot.
"It's really difficult when you are in an overwhelmingly stressful situation," she says. But it's in times like these that the snakes and toads emerge. She urges you to avoid signing any documents which say you can no longer deal directly with your insurer or broker.
"It's much better to deal with your insurer or broker yourself than to go through a third party."
And she has other classic advice. Ring your bank. Use the word hardship in the conversation. Ring your telco and do the same. Ring the National Debt helpline.
"Look beyond your insurer for advice," she says.
And don't expect anything to happen in a hurry.
- Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology and a regular columnist.