All that is left of Kevin and Laurie Walton's west Lancaster home is rubble. A fire reduced the home to near ashes two years ago.
But for the Waltons, it's the day after the fire that still burns.
"The next morning there is a lot of vultures sitting at the gate," Kevin Walton said.
By "vultures" he means people who he says offered help with insurance claims and rebuilding. It's precisely what the California Department of Insurance warns homeowners about every fire season. The agency stresses homeowners contact their insurance agent first to avoid scammers, make sure an adjuster is licensed and photograph belongings as evidence of loss.
The Waltons have photos to show. But it's their adjuster they didn't account for.
"I thought I had somebody here to help me," Kevin Walton said.
Walton says his childhood friend Joe Villa, a licensed independent insurance adjuster, offered his help. The Department of Insurance licenses independent adjusters, who acting as middle men, connect fire victims with companies to pay for and repair damage.
Before long, the Waltons suspected Villa was shady.
"That is the most vulnerable time I have ever felt in my life," Laurie Walton said. "He basically came out to get our checks signed and take them."
Investigators for the Department of Insurance allege Villa took insurance checks, forged signatures from Wells Fargo Bank employees, then had the Waltons sign so he could deposit the check.
"Within two months after the fire, he is embezzling us and we don't even know it," Laurie Walton said.
Investigators allege Villa deposited more than $280,000, spending some money to demolish what was left of the home, and pocketing more than $230,000.
"He essentially stole their money and walked away," said Byron Tucker, California's deputy insurance commissioner.
Tucker says Villa has been arrested. Having allegedly stolen more than $400,000 from homeowners, Villa is charged with multiple felony counts of embezzlement, grand theft, and forgery. He faces up to 10 years behind bars if convicted.
The I-Team has tried repeatedly to contact Villa. He has not returned our calls.
Tucker says the Villa investigation is not over.
"We think there are more victims out there and we urge them to come forward," Tucker said.
The Waltons want their day in court. They have been living in a tiny trailer for two years while rebuilding their home, one paycheck at a time.
"I haven't been able to accept all this yet," Kevin Walton said. "My anger is there and I am just trying to move forward."
To check if an insurance adjuster is licensed, visit insurance.ca.gov or call 800-927-4357.
The California Department of Insurance lists the following information for dealing with insurance adjusters:
- No licensee shall solicit or attempt to solicit a client for employment during the progress of a loss producing occurrence.
- A licensee shall not solicit a contract of employment until seven days have elapsed since the occurrence of a disaster. (Does not apply if the licensee is contacted directly by the insured or the insured's representative)
- No licensee shall solicit a client for employment or initiate any contact with a policyholder between the hours of 6 P.M. and 8 A.M.
- Try to settle your claim directly with your insurance company before hiring a public adjuster or an attorney. Your insurer provides an adjuster at no charge to you. Ask your insurance agent or company representative to help you with your claim, and don't be afraid to ask questions. If you decide to work directly with your insurer, you still have the right to hire a third-party professional (public adjuster or lawyer) to help you.
- If you hire a public adjuster to help you with a claim, be certain that the adjuster is licensed. Call the California Department of Insurance (CDI) or visit www.insurance.ca.gov/license-status/index.cfm for licensing verification and for other information about public adjusters. Call the State, County or other local bar association for information about a prospective attorney, if you are considering hiring an attorney to represent you.
- Public adjusters and lawyers will usually require a percentage of the claim settlement for their services. It is important that you understand what services are being provided and the fees that will be charged by both adjusters and lawyers. Ask your friends, relatives, or business associates for the names of well-regarded professionals in your community.