To catch a faker, it takes an early riser.
A plain-looking car helps, too.
Private investigators say they often set up surveillance by 6 a.m. weekdays outside the residence of an employee suspected of faking an injury or exaggerating how badly he's hurt.
They are watching for the worker to do something — anything — inconsistent with the worker's reported physical limitations.
Working out of a car with a video camera ready, an investigator often will wait for hours. Some carry guns. Some don't. Stealth is key.
“A good PI, I guarantee you, can watch you and you'd never know they're there,” said Robert Cox, owner of Winston Services, a Norman company that has nine investigators.
”They get up early. They get there. They stay out of sight,” he said.
Investigators at Winston Services use their own cars.
“The motto is something nondescript. Something that doesn't stick out,” said Lance West, who supervises investigators at Winston Services.
Investigators say they listen to books on tapes or sports on the car radio during surveillances.
“It can be pretty mundane sitting there in your car all day. You've got to keep in mind you never know when something is going to happen. And, when it does, it's a pretty big adrenaline rush to get some activity, finally,” West said.
Investigators have their tricks to avoid being spotted.
Longtime private investigator James B. Pate, of Hinton, drives a car with darkened windows. He also keeps three or four ball caps handy when he is following someone in the car.
He will do things like switch caps or take his glasses off, put on sun glasses, and then go back later to his regular glasses. “I make my appearance look a little bit different,” he said.
Some investigators resort to unethical ploys.
The unscrupulous ones will spread trash on a worker's yard at 2 or 3 in the morning on trash day so they can get video of the worker later picking it up. Other times they will flatten a car tire or throw quarters outside a house.
“I've known people who have done it,” Pate said of the trash trick. “I don't do that. I refuse. Now if a dog comes up there and strews … trash all over the place, I'm probably not going to scare the dog off, but I'm not going out and do that myself. … You've got to have some character.”
Privacy laws limit what investigators can do, they say. There is no looking over high wooden fences. There is no trespassing.
Pate said in the past, in rural areas of Oklahoma, he would dress in camouflage clothes and watch a house from the woods of the worker's own property. Then, the law changed, he said. Now, he sometimes does the same thing from a neighbor's property, if the neighbor gives him permission.
Pate has come across stills and marijuana patches. Once, while lost near Lake Wister, he drove up on a white supremacist training camp. Fortunately, no one was there.
For the insurance company that hires an investigator, a lot of money may be at stake.
“You know a single back claim is $100,000 by the time they pay all of the medical parts of it and pay the claimant off and the disfigurement,” said Jim Kent, owner of Claim Research Services, a Tulsa-based company that has seven investigators.
Not all successful surveillances result in fraud charges. An insurance adjuster may just confront the employee who is supposed to be temporarily totally disabled and tell the employee to go back to work.
“More often than not, adjusters use the information that we get to help them close the claim. That's all they want to do,” Kent said.
Some private investigators use ruses to get video. At Claim Research Services, the tactic is called an indirect.
In one case, an investigator posed as a hunter to covertly get video on a man who was supposedly temporarily totally disabled from his regular job.
“This guy seemed to get hurt every hunting season. Turned out he had a little business where he processed deer,” Kent said. “We got video of this guy. He's got blood and bone fragments on his hand while he's standing there talking to our investigator.
“There's three clear ways you can be convicted of workers' comp fraud,” Kent said. “The main one … is whenever you catch them working somewhere else when they're claiming to be TTD.”