Sharks on the roads: How S'pore car workshops target accident victims

We explain this curious phenomenon that is happening on our roads and what you should do if you encounter it.

Joshua Lee | October 10, 2021, 09:13 AM

Update: The General Insurance Association of Singapore (GIA) reached out to Mothership after this article was published to provide our readers with more tips on what to do when encountering these "claims specialists" on the road. We have included them at the end of the article.

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Picture this: You're driving to work on the PIE one morning. You're already late but thankfully, traffic on the expressway is moving quickly.

Suddenly, without warning, there is a loud crash and you feel yourself lurching forward in your seat as your car is sent pitching forward by about a metre.

Recovering from the shock, you peek into your rearview mirror and find that another vehicle had rear-ended yours. As you try to wrap your head around this very unlucky (and annoying) turn of events, you hear a sharp knock on your car door window.

A man is standing outside your car. He claims to be an insurance specialist and offers to bring your car to an automotive workshop nearby which can help to settle your repairs and insurance claims.

What do you do?

Specialists trawling the roads for accidents

Cases like this are not uncommon. In fact, you might have seen something quite similar in the news recently:

Many Facebook users have also commented that they personally experienced something similar:

"I was involved in one too. Claim amount by third party ballooned."

"I kena this before. Van hit my car and a car come immediately... say if I let them do the claim they immediately give me S$500 cash..."

Not from insurance companies

These "insurance claims specialists" are not actually from insurance companies, said John (not his real name), a veteran familiar with the automotive workshop scene.

He calls them "floaters" and estimated that there are hundreds of them on the road at any one time scanning for accidents.

A clip of these floaters was uploaded by SG Road Vigilante recently, showing them rushing to engage a driver who was involved in an accident. Credit: SG Road Vigilante.

Why, you might ask.

Well, these floaters get a commission for every car that they bring to a workshop for repair works.

According to John, each car can net a commission of about S$3,000 and from the way that he told it, this arrangement is almost akin to an multi-level marketing (MLM) structure.

"So the higher you go, the more expensive the car you drive," John explained.

Status of floaters according to car model

Younger floaters who drive small, inexpensive cars are the geen na (little ones) in the structure, he explained. Those who are more experienced typically zip around in more expensive cars like BMWs and Mercedes or even sports cars.

One of the cars spotted in the video clip was a black Audi. Credit: SG Road Vigilante.

The money is no doubt attractive, from what we heard from him:

"So imagine, every week you just need to bring in one to two cars. One car is about S$3,000. [Within a month, you get] S$24,000.

You're getting paid more than an executive, more than a fresh grad lawyer or doctor."

Faster than EMAS, faster than Traffic Police

What's really remarkable about the entire operation is the sheer efficiency.

As attested by those who have had brushes with these floaters, they are "faster than EMAS (LTA's vehicle recovery tow truck), faster than Traffic Police".

According to John, they can appear within five to 10 minutes of an accident.

The speed is made possible by the sheer number of floaters who are on the roads monitoring at any one time.

In addition to them, there are normal drivers who are aware that workshops offer commissions for damaged cars that are brought in and they are also looking out for such vehicles, said John.

And it can get very competitive when there are thousands of dollars involved — you can see in this clip a group of floaters allegedly trying to stop another group from approaching the driver involved in the accident.

Modus operandi: Work fast and establish trust

So how do they work?

Once a floater spots an accident, they pull up and approach the first vehicle (always the first, because accidents typically happen from the back).

Their goal is to appear as friendly as possible and make use of the confusion and stress to establish trust.

"During an accident, we all panic right, so we don't know what to do, who to trust, and they have all the paper work, they have everything all settled out, planned out for you," said John.

It also helps if the floater drives the same car as the victim.

A bit of psychology comes into play here, according to John who gave the example of a Porsche driver being more willing to trust another Porsche driver instead of say, someone who drives a Honda Civic.

He said:

"People have that sense of familiarity, right — we are driving the same car, so I should be able to trust you more than someone who's driving maybe an ah beng car."

Once a level of trust has been established, it is easy for the floater to "recommend" a particular workshop.

"Brother, I know of this workshop which can do a good job repairing your car."

"Last time I got into an accident and this workshop helped me restore me car until it looked brand new."

They might even offer to help with the insurance claims — all in a bid to present an easy, fuss-free, and ultimately attractive option for the victim.

Why are these floaters able to achieve such a high commission?

According to John, some workshops inflate the repair and servicing costs that they charge to the insurance companies.

He said:

"This is the main part, the most important part of this, of why the whole thing happens: the insurance claims are about 200, 300, 400 per cent above whatever [the workshop] incurs. Minimum 200 per cent."

This can be done in a variety of ways.

For example, a workshop might submit an invoice for a brand new bumper (to replace a damaged bumper) bought from the car manufacturer directly. Buying directly from a car manufacturer directly is often the most expensive way to procure a spare part.

But instead of replacing the damaged bumper with a direct spare part, the workshop might repair it themselves or procure a cheaper bumper from a local supplier.

Either way, the workshop incurs a small fee for replacing or repairing the broken bumper, but claims a substantial amount from the insurance company, giving them enough to pay as commission.

Are floaters considered conmen?

No, said John.

If anything, the only "crime" these floaters are guilty of is being overly opportunistic, which is hardly a crime at all. You might even think of them as very enthusiastic salespeople.

In any case, the damaged cars do get repaired after a trip to whatever workshops these "specialists" are touting for. And in many cases, the victims do not need to fork out any money because it is all covered by insurance.

Concerns arise

But there are other concerns.

What if you encounter a floater who touts for a less-than-reputable workshop or one that cuts corners? Would you entrust your car's repair works to someone like this?

And what about the safety aspects of ambushing an accident victim on the road? Surely it is a tad unsafe for multiple drivers to jostle for business on the road shoulder — to speak nothing of what happens when an accident occurs in the centre lane.

Indeed, the police recently announced that they are investigating some of the alleged floaters for the following offences:

  1. Causing harassment under the Protection from Harassment Act
  2. Touting for business under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act
  3. Stopping on the road shoulder of an expressway, breaching Road Traffic (Expressway Traffic) Rules

And in its press release, the police added this little nugget of information: that it is an offence for any individual to solicit for any business on any public road or public place in a manner that causes annoyance to others (emphasis ours).

What you should do in this situation

Always keep your car insurance document in your car, said John.

This document should contain a list of workshops which are approved by your insurance company.

If you end up in an accident, you can always refer to this list of workshops, call the one nearest to you and explain to them what happened. If your car still has braking and turning capabilities, the workshop might ask you to drive your car down.

If you notice floaters approaching your vehicle and you do not wish to engage with them, John's advice is to get into your car, lock the doors and remain calm.

Take your time to compose yourself and refer to your insurance document.

If things do get out of hand, call a friend, family member, or in extreme cases, the police.

The General Insurance Association of Singapore (GIA) also advises car owners in such a situation not to engage unauthorised personnel and to quickly move themselves and their vehicles (if possible) to safety.

They should then lodge a police report and contact their insurer immediately. The insurer will be able to advise on the next steps to take, including:

    • Sending the vehicle to the insurer’s Accident Reporting Centre, using tow services offered by the insurer if needed.
    • Refusing offers from people who are not insurer staff appearing at the scene to engage services like towing, repair or claims assistance.
    • Gathering evidence of the car accident by taking images and documenting the scene, licence plate numbers and the extent of damage.

    Some might even stage accidents in order to make fraudulent insurance claims or fake injury claims after convincing drivers that this will help them pay for their own damage.

    If you are approached to participate in something like this, you should collect information and report these individuals to GIA at 6221 8788 or [email protected] .

    Watch a re-enactment of an "insurance specialist" ambush tactic there:

    Top image credit: SG Road Vigilante.