INSURERS FALL VICTIM TO CARGO HIJACKINGS

INSURERS FALL VICTIM TO CARGO HIJACKINGS

Last summer, a Slovenia medical equipment company underwritten by Reinsurance Company Sava Ltd. shipped a truckload of $1.4 million worth of medical supplies to a consignee in Russia.

When the truck driver arrived in Moscow after the 600-mile ride, he dutifully called the consignee and they agreed to meet at a parking lot near the customs house. Once there, he was directed to a customs house. After presenting all the proper customs documents, certificates and even copies of the bonded seals used to secure the container doors, the consignee drove away with the cargo.Only hours later - when the real consignee inquired about the fate of the shipment - did the driver realize he'd been conned.

Before Slovenia-based Sava was even able to pay on the claim, it was hit by a second loss involving roughly the same scam.

To this day, said Sava assistant general manager Borut Jezersek, his company doesn't know exactly how the switch was made. But the final loss was nearly 1 million deutsche marks - about $715,000 - on the first shipment and 800,000 marks on the second.

Russian cargo insurance executives say they're a growing target for well- organized Russian mafia groups using fraud, hijacking, excellent timing and detailed insider information to steal millions of dollars worth of containerized import cargoes.

A report at the International Union of Marine Insurance's annual meeting in Tokyo last week said victims often have little recourse.

"(The Russian) market has experienced many losses due to unauthorized receipt of cargoes imported by road (and collected) against fraudulent documents and imitation of customs clearance," the IUMI report said. "We add that none of the cases registered have been properly investigated by police or customs authorities."

Rather than try and find the culprit, Sava now requires policyholders to use different procedures. Drivers are given photographs and are faxed an exact copy of the consignee's signature. They also carry duplicate cargo seals to compare thickness and quality. Since enacting the new procedures, Sava has escaped further losses.

Other insurers aren't so lucky.

Vlatcheslav Chtcherbakov, vice president of Ingosstrakh Insurance Co., said his Moscow company pays out five or six fraud-related losses a year approaching $2 million in total.

"It's a real problem," he said.

These and other horror stories have made foreign insurers understandably wary of taking the plunge into this industry frontier.

Deirdre H. Littlefield, senior vice president with Swiss Re America Corp., expects little interest among major industry players until greater order is restored to Russian society and its insurance industry. Most business now is limited to a small amount of risk underwritten as part of an important client's global policy.

Nicholas Adamantiadis, IUMI chairman and managing director of Athens-based Hellas Insurance Co., doesn't believe Russia will settle down until early in the next century.

"It's natural turmoil in a country that was 100 percent controlled by the state," he said.

But Mr. Adamantiadis doubts inadequate cover will inhibit trade. Those willing to pay higher premiums for good transport, experienced players and seasoned adjusters will still find a supply of insurance, he said.

"It's a question of money and connections," he said.

Russian underwriters, meanwhile, say brazen fraud is a growth industry. Their conversations with police and customs officials suggest there are thousands of such cases annually across Russia.

Exact statistics are unavailable, however, because police ignore the problem while Russian insurance companies refuse to share information or cooperate for competitive reasons.

Most of the victims reportedly are Eastern European drivers unfamiliar with Russian documents and procedures. Often after drivers realize what happened, they're unable to locate the supposed customs office where it happened.

"There's leakage of information from some source," Mr. Chtcherbakov said, adding that the mafia is likely involved. "But which sources is difficult to investigate."

The thieves seem to know exactly what's packed in the containers and show particular interest in electronics, food, clothing, cigarettes, computers and shoes, which can be sold quickly, often using other fake documents.

Mr. Chtcherbakov said that given the current chaos in Russia, even the police may be involved.

Nor are losses limited to Eastern bloc trade allies. IUMI reports losses

from Singapore insurers with cargo policies on containers of food and electronics. One Singaporean underwriter said most insurers simply write off the loss and then stop underwriting Russian risk.

Russian officials at the IUMI conference said the scope of the problem may also be expanding. Previously, the cases were confined to Russian territory. Now Ingosstrakh reports more cases even before shipments reach Russia, including one recent case in suburban Rotterdam.

Insurers say hijacking is also on the rise, again using detailed knowledge of the contents of shipping documents. In several cases, drivers were abducted into the forest around Moscow and brought back a few hours later to their empty trucks.

Further hampering prosecution, even if the police had the will to pursue these cases, are jurisdictional issues. If the crime happens outside Moscow, drivers often need several hours to reach the capital and find a police station. Once there, they're told to report it where it happened.

"By that time, five hours have passed and it's probably already in the market or in private shops," Mr. Chtcherbakov said.

Ingosstrakh said it's now far more selective about new customers.

''If we don't know the client, even if they offer some nice risk, we don't do it," Mr. Chtcherbakov said. "We never do business with one-man companies."

As the oldest insurance company in Russia, it also has greater ability to conduct background checks and a better network of representatives in ports and at borders who understand the system.