Sally Low is an ex-AIA insurance agent who conned an Indonesian couple into buying a bogus policy that is supposedly worth USD5.06 million. She has been sentenced to prison for 8 years for her unscrupulous behaviour in 2016. However, it was only on 27 Dec 2017 that the Court deemed AIA to be responsible for the act of its representative, Sally Low. AIA was then ordered to pay a compensation of $1.6million to Mr Ong Han Ling and his wife.
While we should rightly condemn such despicable acts from people who we have trusted to take care of our financial needs, it is also imperative that we learn something from this case and not fall prey to such scams. Moreover, there are also some surprising and interesting points that we want to point out.
In order for us to do so, let us quickly recap the case.
How Sally had swindled her client.
In late 2002, Sally Low who was an AIA advisor then, made up a fictitious AIA Thank You policy and promoted it to Mr Ong. The insurance plan offered a certain guaranteed return after a period of 5 years to the Ongs. Putting their trust in Sally, Mr Ong remitted an amount of USD 5 million to AIA.
Unknown to the Ongs, Sally, ostensibly acting on behalf of them, instructed AIA to instead use the Ongs’ remittance to purchase six AIA policies in the Ongs’ respective names. She then handed AIA policy applications with some containing the Ongs’ forged signatures. 2 years later, Sally managed to convince the Ongs that a series of computer crashes had mistakenly transferred their money for the purchase of some AIA policies. She induced them to surrender the wrong policies and transferred the monies to her. They were S$6,288,058 and US$1,000,000 respectively. Only in 2008 did the Ongs discovered the fraud and recovered part of the monies successfully.
Mr Ong sued AIA on the basis that AIA has to be vicariously liable for the acts of its representative (Sally Low). AIA countersued Mr Ong for conspiring with Sally to defraud the insurance company. The Court dismissed AIA’s claim after listening to Sally and deciding that her account was unconvincing and fanciful. AIA was held responsible for Sally’s fraudulent acts and thus, ordered to compensate Mr Ong for his losses.
Lesson 1: Everyone may be a victim but the wealthy ones have a better chance of recovery.
While we are not sure what Mr Ong does for a living, but the 72-year-old is reported to be a businessman. He must have been a successful one since he can afford such a high-value insurance policy. It can be reasonably deduced if someone that is financially savvy like Mr Ong may be conned, it is also possible for anyone of us to fall prey to similar scams.
Whenever we hear of stories like this, we tend to think that the victims must be especially susceptible ones. Young kids, ignorant teens or lonely old folks come to mind. We like to think that we are smart and financially sharp enough to be able to spot any kind of fraud from miles away. However, it may just take a moment of folly for us to entrust someone dishonest with our hard-earned savings. And that can happen to just about anyone – whether you are the poor student or the talk show host.
The difference is that you may never be able to see a cent back if you do not have the resources to recover the money. This case has shown us succinctly why – it took Mr Ong 10 years to finally seek justice and recoup his losses with interest. Can you imagine how much time, effort and not to mention money to do so?
Even if you have the time and perseverance to pursue the matter, you have to have sufficient money to afford the legal fees. We are no lawyers ourselves but it is not hard to imagine that the legal cost would exceed a quarter of a million for engaging a top lawyer for 10 years. Even though the legal cost may likely be borne by the losing party (AIA), you still have to foot the bill first.
Thus, we can see that prevention is certainly better than the recovery for most of us. Thankfully for you, we have previously drilled in on such similar scams and made a list on how you may outsmart the insurance con-men (and women).
Lesson 2: The insurance company is vicariously liable for the acts of its representative.
You may think it has always been the case that the insurer has to be responsible for the acts of its employee. That is true if an advisor is considered as an employee. However, the relationship between the insurance company and its agent has always been a Principal-Agent in nature and not one that is employer-employee one.
The difference between the two is that if an agent has acted outside of his or her authority, the Principal may not be held responsible. On the other hand, there is stronger responsibility assigned to the employer if its employee has acted fraudulently in his course of employment. Therefore, the Court has effectively viewed Sally Low as an employee of AIA even though she is actually engaged as an agent.
This is definitely good news for us as consumers. It is akin to having Uber or Grab to be responsible for the acts of their drivers even though they are engaged as contractors. Instead of suing the fraudster who is often bankrupted, the consumers may go after the financially stable companies behind the scammer. However, this also leads us to question – how about the independent financial advisor (IFA)?
An IFA is an advisor who is able to sell you financial products from different insurers and investment companies. Therefore, an IFA will definitely not be seen as an employee of an insurance company when things go awry. With an increasing preference for IFAs nowadays, is there an increased risk for us as consumers because we do not have a direct line of recovery against the cash-rich insurers but have to go up against the IFA itself?
We know for sure that all advisors have professional indemnity insurance that will pay for such lawsuits. However, we cannot help but feel that with this verdict, it appears that transacting with a tied agent gives us better assurance when it comes to fraud recovery.
Lesson 3: Check and balance is important regardless of trust.
Yes, this sounds political. It turns out that what the Worker’s Party had said about check and balance applies to our daily lives, whether you have voted for whites or not. It is great to buy policies based on trust. However, it is certainly more prudent to keep an eye on whether proper execution has taken place.
The insurance companies will definitely send your policy documents to you either digitally or to your preferred address. If your agent decides to pass it by hand, you can still check what policies you own at the end of each year when the insurance companies send out their annual policyholder statement.
With increasing digitalization within the insurance industry, you can now log in to most of the major insurers’ website and check on your policies 24/7. Some insurers even have their own apps for you to not just keep a close eye on your policies but also for you to perform certain transactions with them. It is certainly easier for you to review your plans now as compared to when this Sally Low saga occurred 16 years ago.
There you go. No matter how close you are with your advisor, it is important for you to check on your insurance policies. It may not be just for fraud-detection but just in case that your advisor has somehow made an honest mistake. Certainly, a well-intended insurance advisor has no qualms about you checking on his conduct. In fact, doing so will boost the trust level between you and your advisor as you become assured that he is doing everything perfectly.
This saga has definitely hurt the reputation of AIA and the overall level of trust between the policyholders and advisors. However, insurance is too important to be missed out just because of the dishonest acts of a few rogue advisors.
Take the necessary precautions and have yourself properly insured because the alternative of not having any insurance is definitely worse than the extremely low risk of buying a made up policy.
www.ClearlySurely.com aims to eradicate the knowledge gap between consumers and Life Insurance. Our Vision is that one day, every Man, Woman, and Child will be properly insured.