Editor’s Note: This is part of an ongoing series, “Waiting In Pain,” that examines Hawaii’s workers’ compensation system.
George Copeland might spend his work day filming an exotic dancer with a hidden camera. Or making a quick exit when a crew of construction workers comes at his car.
Or maybe just staring for 12 hours at an apartment door.
Copeland is a private investigator who specializes in workers’ comp cases. Insurers routinely hire investigators like him to follow and record injured workers to make sure they’re not faking it, especially in long-running, complicated cases.
Copeland gets a street-level view of the sometimes-contentious struggles between claimants and their insurers. He deploys an array of hidden cameras – in a watch, a pen, eyeglasses, a key fob or a button of his shirt – so many small devices, it’s hard to keep track of them all.
He’s an expert at trailing a target’s car at just the right distance – not far enough that he can be shaken, but not so close as to tip them off. He’d rather lose someone than arouse their suspicions.
Like a firefighter, Copeland is accustomed to snapping into action.
“One minute you’ll be sitting there trying to stay awake and the next minute you’re following the person on the freeway and trying to keep up with them,” he said.
Copeland, born and raised in California, has been an investigator for about two decades. Workers’ comp accounts for two-thirds of his time.
He believes fraud is common in the workers’ comp world, but admits his view may be influenced by the fact that many cases come to him because the insurance company sees red flags.
He’s had slam-dunk cases, like the exotic dancer who’d supposedly injured her back while working at a store.
“It was a little tricky because obviously in those types of places, they don’t want camera and video,” he recalls.
But the footage proved useful to the insurance company. “Her dancing around obviously showed her back was just fine,” he said.
Then there was the roofer who really had been injured, but ended up staying off work long enough to arouse suspicions. It turned out he had started his own roofing company and was going after some of his former employer’s business.
Copeland videotaped him on the roof, humping shingles in the hot sun. He interviewed the homeowner and put it all together in a package for the prosecutor.
Mainland insurers are often fixated on the prospect of getting shots of the injured worker surfing, apparently under the impression that all Hawaii residents are Eddie Aikau wannabes. Copeland doesn’t mind – it can mean getting out of his hot car and spending the day on the beach.
And he does see injured workers surfing. But he knows that not all of those cases reveal fraud. Sometimes injured workers may be following doctor’s orders, paddling on a surfboard to strengthen their backs.
One of the key tricks of the trade is knowing how to back off when you’ve been noticed.
“You get the nosey auntie next door. That’s the one we’ve got to watch out for.” — George Copeland, private detective
“We’ve had people come out from their house with a two-by-four and throw it at the car,” he said. “There was one time where I was at a construction site and basically all the workers came off from the house and ran towards the car …
“You don’t want to just roll down your window and say, ‘Oh, sorry folks.’ You can’t really talk your way out of it. So the best thing to do is just get out of there as quickly as possible and maybe even contact the police to let them know you’ve been spotted or basically chased out of the neighborhood.”
The detective is less wary of being detected in neighborhoods with sketchy reputations than on quiet blocks.
“Our biggest problem,” he said, “would be the older person that is home all day watching the street. You get the nosey auntie next door. That’s the one we’ve got to watch out for.”
It’s not anywhere near as glamorous as what you see on TV. Copeland spends more than half of his time writing reports. How often have you seen Steve McGarrett alone at a keyboard?
“I feel sorry for a lot of these folks. It’s not like you just sit at home and collect big checks.” — George Copeland
Sometimes, the target of the surveillance doesn’t do much of anything for days on end as Copeland sits in his car watching. Those cases are the most challenging. Still, the information can prove of value to the insurer, which also wants to know if the person is truly injured.
It can be an odd kind of intimacy, getting to know another person’s routines and catching glimpses of their lives.
“We’ve followed people to a gravesite or some type of service,” he said. “And at that point it feels like it’s getting a little too personal.” Sometimes, he backs off.
And though he believes fraud is common, Copeland can’t help but feel some sympathy. It’s tough to get by in Hawaii. Maybe the person was working two jobs, paying someone for child care, and really did get hurt on the job. Staying home with the kids, with some income from workers’ comp, may look enticing even after the injury is resolved.
Then there are the injured workers who’ve gotten hooked on opioids. The workers’ comp claim is a way to keep the drugs flowing.
And because of fraud, he said, insurance companies may make workers jump through hoops – for instance, by submitting to repeated exams by doctors paid by the insurance company.
“I feel sorry for a lot of these folks,” Copeland said. “It’s not like you just sit at home and collect big checks.”
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