Florida Officials Suspect Fraud in Rash of Kitchen Fires

By Michael Adams | August 1, 2011

Florida officials are investigating a spate of kitchen fires that have some wondering if they may have been started on purpose to receive money from insurance companies. State officials say what used to be a minor problem is now growing into a sophisticated fraud racket.

The numbers tell the story. South Florida registered roughly half of the state’s total home arson cases investigated by the Florida Division of Insurance Fraud in fiscal year 2010 through 2011. The number of claims linked to questionable home fires rose from 31 percent to 74 percent. The majority of those claims were in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, and Broward counties.

The state has setup two Kitchen Fire Task Forces to see if the fires could be due to arson. One working theory is that a homeowner leaves food cooking on the stove and then departs to find some missing ingredient. In the meantime, the oil catches fire, sometimes resulting in the loss of the entire kitchen. The policyholder isn’t required to call a fire department but can just call a public adjuster, whose income depends on the proceeds of any settlement. Some believe there is a financial motive to inflate the cost of repair and renovation.

Investigators say that in some cases the kitchen claims are not for money, but as a means to remodel their existing kitchens.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau Herb Price said these acts of arson are slowly and surely growing throughout the state. “It first looked like it was a small ring of people in Miami. Now it’s spread to a lot of people,” he said “They think it’s a good way to fund a new kitchen renovation.”

For example, in 2010, the task force arrested five Miami public adjustors for their roles in two kitchen-fire schemes. One adjuster, Jorge Antonio Espinosa, allegedly used a hammer so that the kitchen sustained greater damage. Officials said he submitted a claim for $69,000 and kept a sizable commission. He and four of his employees were later arrested on numerous charges, ranging from fraud, to grand theft, to tampering with evidence.

In 2009, Cristian Rodriquez admitted to setting a fire and causing $100,000 in damages to his home to remodel his kitchen, according to officials. His case is pending in the criminal courts.

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