Sunday, July 11, started off wrong and, then, got worse.
I was up early watching the Tour de France. I’m an addict. Smack dab in front of my big screen, one of my heroes, Lance Armstrong, had an accident that would take him out of contention for the Yellow Jersey.
And, then, I got the phone call. My studio had been broken into. Someone had kicked in a large display window and ransacked the place. Storage room doors had been pried open, drawers and boxes emptied on the floor — and things had been stolen. Lots of things.
Not the least of which was my sense of serenity — the peace I felt in my “creative place”.
Since then, I’ve been trying to put my studio and that part of my life back together. This isn’t the first time I’ve been a crime victim. I’ve been car jacked — with a gun to my head and almost shot. I’ve had other things stolen.
Each time, two things happened. I searched my mind to figure out what I could have done differently, better, to prevent the crimes. And, I dealt with insurance companies, trying to replace the physical, tangible things that I lost.
In this post, I’ll write about both journeys — the critical analysis of my attempts at crime prevention, and what I’ve learned from negotiating the obstacle course that often makes a trip down the path of the insurance process difficult and unpleasant.
My goal is simple: To give you the benefit of the lessons I’ve learned.
If burglars want to break in, they will break in. It’s that simple. We cannot stop them.
At best, we can try to deter them. We can make it more difficult. And, we can raise the risk that they will get caught.
But, if they are willing to break down whatever barriers we erect, and if they are willing to risk of arrest, there is nothing we can do.
However, that does not mean that we should not try. Many years ago, when my Pacific Palisades, California, neighborhood was facing a string of burglaries, we had a neighborhood meeting. The local police sent a representative. His message was clear — make it difficult, make it risky, and hope the burglars move on to another target.
Perhaps, the most important lesson I learned was “Don’t tempt them. Hide the ‘given objects’. Keep them out of easy view. Don’t let them know what’s behind the doors and locks.”
“Hide the given object.” Hmm. For many of us that’s kind of hard to do. We are photographers. We have signs on our studios. Pictures in our windows. Not much of a secret about what’s inside. There’s a good chance there are cameras, computers, expensive things in there — whether they can be seen or not.
Actually, I had followed that advice — most of the time. My studio is in a Design Center — a place where there are showrooms full of expensive furniture and rugs. All of the tenant spaces share a common feature — our front walls are all glass, huge display windows that go from ground to ceiling. We live in a fishbowl. My front room is very plain and simple. Office furniture and computer equipment. Plain white walls — no prints (I know that’s weird but it’s me — I feel more creative in a blank space). All of the good stuff is in my camera room and a locked storage closet — neither of which can be seen from the outside.
But, on the night of the burglary, I left some “given objects” in plain view in the front room. On the previous day, my daughter Jenny was shooting some senior portfolios. When I shoot, I often wheel some of the lights and things I won’t be using out of the camera room and store them in the front room. That day, I put several lights on stands — replete with soft boxes, up front to get them out of the way. Since Jen was going to shoot the following day, I did not put them back. And, because I knew I’d be back the following morning, I left my MacBook Pro on my desk. (I usually take it down and home. Didn’t do it that night and I really kick myself, now. That day, while Jenny was shooting, I wrote two articles that I was going to post on this site, for the July “content”. I didn’t back them up. I’m unusually anal about backing up; but, that night, I let it slip. And, that’s why there has been a big gap in updating content.)
So, “given objects” in plain view. But, I don’t know. I’m not sure the stands, lights, and boxes were all that tempting. In fact they were not stolen. If anything “lured” them in, I think it was the computer. I’ll never leave one out, again. (Actually, that’s not quite right. I’ve got a collection of old Mac’s in the office — a virtual tour down Mac Memory Lane. I think they are funky looking. They are always in plain view. But, only the current and valuable model was stolen.)
I did. And, it didn’t help.
The entry doors to my studio have a dead bolt. So, the burglars kicked in a display window. Why mess with a lock when one swift blow can create a huge entry way?
The door to my storage closet has a deadbolt. So, they pried it open.
One of the storage cabinets has one of those Kryptonite type bike locks on it; they didn’t try to break the lock; instead, they grabbed onto it, used it as a handle, and pulled the cabinet door off its hinges. (That’s the picture you see at the top of this article. I’ve diddled with the image; in its real form, the stark reality still upsets me.)
Yes, I could have used more dead bolts, stronger hinges, with better reinforcement — but I remain convinced that there is a way to break into most places, and the only thing we can do is make it so hard that they won’t take the time to do it.
And, that’s where the safe comes in. I have a large safe, bolted to my floor, in which I keep all of my most valuable gear. It has my Nikon cameras and lenses. They did not even try to get into it. What was bad could have been worse — but for the safe. If I could turn my entire studio into a safe, I would. But, I can’t.
One of the things that upsets me most was also one of the hardest lessons to learn: the crooks used my camera bags and rollers to carry away my stuff.
First, they took my entire off-camera-flash kit that was thoughtfully and carefully organized in one large camera bag; 4 of my cherished, impossible to replace SB800′s, my supreme commander SB900 (not as loved but functional), dozens of batteries, several chargers and clamps, mounting hardware, and modifiers — all easily carried away because I had packed them in a bag. Frankly, I don’t think they knew what they were getting. It was just so easy to take that they did. More than anything, I’m going to miss that kit.
And, then, they took my Large Tenba Roadie, threw away the dividers and filled it. So, too several other bags.
Lesson Learned: I’m going to try to figure out a way to secure my bags so that they cannot be used against me. Maybe chain them up. Hang them from the ceiling? If you can think of a better way, let me know.
So, that’s the story of Part 1 of the Journey — the burglary itself.
As painful as that was, more pain was to follow. I had to file and pursue an insurance claim. The burglars were in my studio for maybe 15 minutes; the insurance companies have been in my life for the last 6 weeks, and there is no end in sight.
I think we all know that no matter what we do, we cannot stop a determined thief.
That’s why we buy insurance. We know bad things might happen. So, we get insurance to give us the peace of mind that should something happen we will be able to get back to where we were before the painful event.
Would that that were so. Although I’m sure that many of us have had very positive experiences with insurance companies, some of us have not.
Unfortunately, my experience with my carrier, so far, has not been pleasant. My claim has yet to be resolved. I am having a dispute with one of my companies as to the nature of the policy and the scope of its coverage. More on that later.
My goal in this section is to discuss insurance in broad terms — to raise some potential issues, to give you some things to think about as you insure your equipment.
Before I go further I want to make one thing clear: Nothing in this article is to be construed as either legal or professional advice. Please, use what is written as the basis upon which you consult with your insurance agents and attorneys. Let them guide you. Each of us has different needs and only professional guidance will make sure they are met.
(And, therein lies my problem — and possibly yours, too, if you have a loss. I bought my policy through one of my professional organizations. I heard it described at a convention. I did not have an “agent” in the traditional sense of the word. I did not see the actual policy. I did not have a personal connection to the protection of my equipment.)
Before we start talking about the different kids of insurance policies, we need to talk about something that crosses over whatever type of insurance we get.
Most insurance policies — be they special schedules or professional coverage — demand that we keep an accurate inventory of the equipment we want insured. And, they ask us to file that inventory with them on a set basis.
Most of us keep our receipts. I’ve gone one step farther. Several years ago, I created a database in Filemaker Pro that lists my equipment and keeps track of what it is, when I bought it, what I paid for it, and the serials numbers, when applicable.
Creating it took a couple of days. I carried my laptop around the studio and entered everything I thought should be insured. I did the same thing at home. It wasn’t fun, but it was essential.
Now, I have a ritual. Whenever I buy something, before I take it to the studio, before I start to use it, I enter it in the database.
Here’s a copy of the base form I use. This is the data entry layout:
To make entry easy, almost all of the categories have drop down menus so that I do not have to type in much data. Here’s an example of the drop down for the “Vendor” entry:
Most of the columns are self-explanatory. The “Total Replacement Cost” column keeps track of all of the items in the database. When I get rid of something, instead of taking it out of the database, I “retire it” from use and take it off the insurance policy. There are some things I do not insure or do so with another carrier — so I have a drop down “Yes” and “No” in the form.
Actually, my current database has more options. I have an entry that tells me what was stolen on July 11. And, to which insurer I am submitting the claim. I also added a column with a URL for the insurance company showing what the current cost of replacement is; all the claim adjustor has to do is click and the item and price pops up. The easier we make things for the claim adjustor the faster the claim will be adjusted.
Over the days following the burglary, I took a print out of the schedule to my studio and used colored markers to mark what was there and what was not. I then entered the data into the form and printed out the inventory of what was lost. That’s what I sent to the claim adjustor.
Whenever I want to update my insured inventory, I use a second Layout to send information to the insurer. Here’s what it looks like:
Without this database, I’m not sure how I’d have gone about proving my loss. I would have taken a lot of searching through old records — some of which are in storage.
For me, the maintenance of these records has been well worth the effort. I strongly suggest that you develop a system of your own.
One last point: Make sure to put everything on the schedule; if it is not listed, most companies will say it won’t be covered. I lost a hard drive and cable; the hard drive was listed; the cable was not; the cable was not covered. It’s a pain in the butt, but to be on the safe side we have to list every little thing that we want insured. And, that’s understandable. They need to know the nature of the risk they are covering. When filling out the inventory, pay attention to the details.
To make it easier for those of you who don’t want to “program” a database, I posted a copy of my template for you to download. To use it, you’ll need Filemaker Pro which runs on both the Apple and Windows operating systems. From what I understand, but have not tried, you can import this template into other databases and spreadsheets. You can edit the drop down menus such as “Type”, “Manufacturer”, and “Vendor” by going to the bottom of the list and hitting “Edit”; you will be able to add or delete at will.
To get your free copy, click here. You will be asked for the password which is — FreeTemplate. Duh! Not too creative. But, it will work.
Most of us have insurance on our equipment. But, do we have the right policies?
There is nothing worse than having an insurance policy only to find out, at a time of loss, that the policy we have is not the policy we thought it was. That’s where I’m caught right now. In “coverage hell”.
I bought a policy that I was told would pay for the “replacement” of lost or damaged equipment. In the world of insurance, “replacement” usually means that we will get something of “like kind and quality” — whatever the cost of doing so. My written policy was consistent with that representation.
But, when the claim was sent to an adjustor, the ground rules changed. I was told that I would be paid the “scheduled amount” of my loss or the cost of replacement — whichever was less. The scheduled amount was the amount I listed in the “cost” columns of my spreadsheet. When I told the adjustor that under that interpretation, one that I did not accept, I would not be able to replace all that was stolen, I was told something to the effect of “Well, you’ll just have to decide what you can do without.” In other words, the policy that had guaranteed that I would be able to replace whatever I lost had turned into a policy that would not.
With this type of policy interpretation, we, as photographers, face a scheduling dilemma. Our photography equipment often appreciates in value. That’s rare in the world of consumer spending; most of the stuff we buy goes down in value. However, for example, I paid about $100.00 less per SB800 than I will have to pay to replace them with SB900′s. Why the 900′s? Because I can’t get the 800′s anymore. Wish I could; in my eyes they are a far better unit. But, the 900 is considered the unit of “like kind and quality”. The same can be said about the prices of some Nikon lenses. They’ve gone up, not down, in value.
And, that’s why most of us want true “replacement value” insurance. If we buy a policies that pay the “scheduled amount”, we are forced, on a daily basis, to track the value of each piece of equipment to make sure it is listed at its current price on our database. In essence, our equipment becomes a commodity and we are tracking its value; it’s like following the stock commodities markets on a daily basis. And, with each move up and down, we have to file an amended schedule with the insurance company. We are in the photography business — not the scheduling business. With policies that demand daily updates, we are at risk because, most of us will not have the time to do it.
The “daily update policy” is a nightmare. And, one that both the professional organization that represents my plan, and the broker that sells it for the organization, claim is not what I bought.
But, today, as I write this column, that is how the adjustor is handling my claim.
To the credit of my professional organization, their officers are strongly and steadfastly working to clear up this coverage mess. I am confident they will do so. They want the best policy for all of us, the one that will give us true coverage, and I’m sure they will get it.
The Bottom Line Is: Most of us want to know that if we lose a camera or lens, we get it replaced by a camera or lens of like kind and quality. We want “replacement” coverage.
There are other types of policies. Some pay the “actual cash value” of the loss — which to most insurance companies means the market value of the lost item on the day it was lost; in most cases that’s a depreciated amount; we’d have to read the fine print, but I’m pretty sure the companies will not want to pay the “appreciated value” should that be the case.
One last note on “replacement policies”. Many pay you the actual cash value UNLESS and UNTIL you replace the item. If you replace the item you get the replacement cost. Under this scenario: you lose a lens that will cost $1,000 to replace; it’s current value, depreciated, is $750; if you take the money, you get $750; if you buy a replacement lens and pay $1,000 for it, they give you the remaining $250.
I write this so that when you buy your policies, you will know to ask careful questions to make sure you are getting exactly what you want and need.
Important Lesson Learned: We have to do more than ask the right questions and listen carefully to the answers — WE HAVE TO READ A COPY OF THE POLICY BEFORE WE BUY IT. And, that’s not the way most of us buy insurance. Most of us talk to an agent and buy a policy without seeing the actual language of the policy we are buying. Later, we receive what is known as a “binder” or “dec page” — a summary page that commits the company to coverage and states the nature and limits of the policy; the “dec page” does not contain any of the fine print that sets the scope of the coverage. Later, we get the actual policy. In the best of all worlds, the policy we are told we are getting will be the policy we actually get. But, we don’t always live in the best of all worlds. Best Practice: Ask to see the actual policy before you sign the dotted line.
1. Household Insurance
Relying on your home owners or renters insurance carries some risks. Most policies will not cover “professional” equipment. I’m not sure how they define professional, but I do know that the more you have, and the better it is, the more professional you look. For most of us this is not a safe insurance path. First, you run the risk that your loss will not be covered at all. And, second, even if it is covered under the general “personal property” coverage, you run the risk that the deductible will be so high that you will not be able to replace much of what is lost.
2. Business Policies
Most of us who rent space have liability policies that cover the premises and some of our belongings. However, once more, there are risks involved with relying on these policies to insure our equipment. These, too, are often limited to a percentage of the policy coverage. And, they, too, may exclude specific “tools of the trade”. But, most of these companies will insure our equipment if we “schedule” it.
3. Equipment Policies
Therefore, most of us will want policies specifically designed to cover photographic equipment. There’s nothing exotic about this coverage and many companies can do it. It’s simply a matter of finding an agent who knows what we have, understands it, and helps us get the right coverage. In almost all cases, a proper inventory will be essential to the process.
We buy insurance to give us peace of mind. We buy it to know that if there is a loss, we have a partner standing beside us who will help us get back on our feet. Each year we go without a claim is a good year — for us and for the company. And, we think little about the relationship.
It is at the time of loss that we need that partnership to work. We need a company that takes our claims seriously and responds, promptly and diligently to perform the promises it has made to us. And, we need to do everything we can to facilitate the company’s handling of our claims.
The more prepared we are for a loss, the more we can give the claim adjustor, the more likely we will have a prompt and proper administration of the claim.
My claim has been delayed for other reasons. There is a dispute as to what coverage my association was selling and the nature of my policy. As soon as that conflict is resolved, I’ll update this article, name names, and give a bit more insight as to what I perceive the value of the policy to be. I will say that at this time, I’m investigating other policies. I’ll share what I’ve learned, soon.
In the mean time, it might serve all of you well to take a good look at your own policies and discuss them with your agents. If you want “replacement” insurance, make sure you have it. And, make sure what responsibilities you have in terms of tracking and updating the values of your equipment.
I know it’s a little late. The cameras are out of the corral. But, I’ve installed an alarm system at my studio.
I did it with mixed feelings. Truth be told, I’m not sure how much it will help.
The idea is that if someone breaks in, an alarm sounds, and a call goes out to the police. The police come and arrest the bad guys.
In theory, that’s great. But, it’s all dependent on one thing — the response time of the local police, how quickly they get to the studio after the alarm goes off.
If they can get there in less than 5 minutes, the chances are that they will catch someone.
But, in most cities, response times are much slower — and burglars know that. I’ve been told that most burglars count on being in and out in less than 10 minutes and know, if they are that quick, they will most likely get away.
So why did I put in the alarm? To raise the risk of getting caught AND to give myself peace of mind (even if it is a bit “false”).
The burglars cannot count on a response time. They will not know if there is a car in the vicinity of my studio that will get there in a couple of minutes. When that siren goes off, they will either leave or rush their survey of my stuff, both of which are good for me.
I did a lot of research on alarm systems and have chosen one that I think best meets many of our needs. I’m in the process of testing it. If it works well, I’ll write about it. I’ve also negotiated a discount program for my readers. So, if I think it’s worth installing, I’ll do a complete article on my research, why I chose this system, and offer a discount code for all of you.
(Copyright: PrairieFire Productions/Stephen J. Herzberg — 2010)