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FOX 29 Investigates: Potentially Questionable Roof Inspections

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Jeff Cole confronts Vanguard Office Manager Jake Thalwitzer Jeff Cole confronts Vanguard Office Manager Jake Thalwitzer
MEDFORD TWP., N.J. -

It's late May and a South Jersey neighborhood is alive with the sound of work. The workers are laying down new roofs, hauling shingles, slapping them in place and, with a quick burst of the gun, nailing them down.

These workers work for Vanguard Construction of South Jersey. Judging from the number of signs posted on lawns in certain Mt. Laurel neighborhoods, Vanguard's been very busy. In fact, it was the signs that caught our eye. They offer "free hurricane damage inspections" and list a number to call.

In the wake of Sandy, New Jersey officials have sounded the alarm about insurance fraud. They warn that false claims drive-up premiums for everyone.

"We take allegations of insurance fraud very seriously, Jeff..." says Kenneth Kobylowski, commissioner of New Jersey's Department of Banking and Insurance. "A lot of people think it's just the companies that will be paying out on fraudulent claims, but that's not true because it all trickles down to the premiums we pay."

With his words in mind, FOX 29 Investigates turns to Vanguard. We wanted to know what happens when a homeowner gets a free hurricane inspection.

"I saw a sign for free hurricane inspection. I would like to have one," we call them and say.

So we set-up an appointment.

"I would like to do it at one o'clock on Friday if possible," says our undercover producer.

Two of Vanguard's "project managers" show up at a Medford, New Jersey home. The home has a 20-year-old roof, a roof that the people who live in the home say "looked the same" after Sandy as it did before the storm.

"I personally have evaluated over 20,000 roofs," says Steve Thomas, president of Roof Leak Detection Company. We had Steve Thomas take a look from the lawn.

"There's just not the evidence of wind damage," he says, with his decades of experience evaluating storm damage on roofs for businesses and homeowners as the president of the Florida-based national roof leak detection firm.

"Do you think this roof sustained significant storm damage as a result of Sandy that came here last fall?" we ask him.

"No, I do not."

But that's not what we heard from Kyle Hill and Steve Moffett of Vanguard, when they showed up for our free inspection. We recorded using a hidden camera.

"As far as you're giving a free hurricane inspection, what do you tell them regarding this roof?" asks our undercover producer.

"This is wind damage," says Steve Moffett.

"Wind damage?"

"Ya."

"From the hurricane?"

"Ya."

You heard right. After looking up at the roof for about 10 minutes, the men said it had been damaged in the storm. They even coached our undercover FOX 29 Producer on how to file the claim he'd make with an insurance company.

"They are going to ask you the date of loss, you're going to say 10/29. That's the date of Sandy, so it's going to be wind damage. They're going to say, ‘what kind of damage?' You're going to say wind damage," coaches Moffett.

Remember, Steve Thomas said he saw no wind damage at all. He also told us that the roof could be repaired with little more than a hammer to knock down some popped-up nails.

"I see no evidence of wind damage. I think the roof is very repairable, very minimal. This is one where I would tell the homeowner to make minor repairs and your roof is fine. It is not leaking; it is doing what it is supposed to do," advises Thomas.

When the Vanguard workers showed up for the free hurricane inspection, they said we could get a brand new roof.

"So the bottom line is, even though this is not hurricane damage, I can still get a new roof," we say.

"Ya. It's wind damage," replies Steve Moffett.

"And that's not against the law or anything?" we ask.

"No," Moffett replies.

After a Vanguard official first agreed to view our video and answer questions on camera, Vanguard's office manager Jake Thalwitzer called back and refused to do either.

"Don't tell me what I have to do," he told Jeff Cole.

In response to questions e-mailed by FOX 29 Investigates, Thalwitzer wrote to us that sales representatives are trained in the:

"...basic aspects of the roofing business and always counseled to communicate responsibly and professionally..."

But he also wrote:

"...Vanguard's high standards are occasionally unknowingly compromised..."

And he added.

"...it is the insurance company adjuster which decides whether a roof damaged by storm can be replaced under terms of the policy after the insurance company adjuster inspects the roof. It is infrequent for an insurance company to reject an assessment by Vanguard."

Moffett and Hill did say that the adjuster would have final say on what the insurance company would cover, whether a new roof or just repairs. But they also claim that they could help the adjuster with his work.

"A lot of times the guys come out here without ladders--we have a ladder for them to get on the roof. We go with them. Sometimes, they're afraid to get on the roof. We get on the roof and take pictures for them, so that's what we're here for," says Moffett. "The bottom line, as far as the insurance company: as long as you can paint the picture that it's wind damage from the storm that the guy is coming out here for that you reported it on, they are going to replace it. They're not going to ask you over and over."

And what about the free hurricane damage inspection? They had something to say about them too.

"So I can get a new roof for free, even though it really didn't get damaged by the storm?" we ask.

"Yea, because what we do is take care of [it]," answers Hill.

"We're going to take care of the deductible for you. We just put a sign on your yard and call it a marketing fee," says Moffett.

Then we revealed we were with FOX 29 investigates.

"You told me that the claim would go in for the day of the hurricane; you even gave me the date, you said October 29th[. S]o if the claim is going in for the date of the hurricane, that's what we're talking about right?"

"We never got on the roof," says Hill.

"We didn't do the inspection yet," says Steve Moffett. "I told him what I think…I think that if we get on the roof and he has damage for the hurricane or from wind damage, then it is a wind damage situation. He can put in a claim in and get approved for wind damage."

While Hill and Moffett did talk about going on the roof with the insurance company claims adjuster, they never asked to go up before telling our undercover producer there was wind damage.

We showed what the workers said about the roof to Steve Thomas, the President of Roof Leak Detection.

"I think they were being dishonest in their review of the roof," says Thomas. "I am very certain they are incorrect."

Again, we offered to bring our undercover video to Vanguard and show them all of it. Office Manager Thalwitzer refused to view the video unless we gave it to him.

We can't do that, so we went to the office to urge him one more time to take a look and ask him about what his guys told us.

"Your guys said that we would make a claim for the day of the storm. They were there for 10 or 15 minutes. They said you're going to put in a claim and it's going to be the day of the storm," Jeff Cole told him.

"If you send me the tape, I will respond to anything via e-mail," says Jake Thalwitzer.

"We will show you every frame of the video, but you can't have it in your possession. Please sit and talk with us at some point," Cole says.

Thalwitzer then closes the door on the FOX 29's Jeff Cole.

Meanwhile, New Jersey's Banking and Insurance Commissioner says that Vanguard is under investigation by its Bureau of Fraud Deterrence.

"You can tell me you are looking at this company?" asks Jeff Cole.

"Yes we are," says Commissioner Kenneth Kobylowski.

"It's an on-going investigation?"

"Yes it is."

"Where it goes, nobody knows, but at this point, you are concerned enough to take a good look at them?"

"We certainly do."

The commissioner of New Jersey's Department of Banking and Insurance says that its investigation began after the department received an "anonymous tip" about Vanguard's operations. We'll report on any developments.

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