Up Front: September 2009

Bad news travels fast

You never know how many friends you have until tragedy strikes. Well, tragedy might be a bit strong. “Some woman backed into me,” my wife whimpers over the phone. That evening after work, I look over the car. “Where?” “There,” she says, pointing. I’ve seen bigger dimples on a baby’s butt. Most of the dent pops out when I give the fender a tug. “No need to mess with it,” she says. “By the time I got home, we already had messages from a couple of body shops.” It’s the beginning of a heartwarming outpouring of concern.

Within 48 hours, we have 21 letters from lawyers — plus CDs, business cards and several refrigerator magnets. There are 20 from chiropractors, including one with a flyer showing a white beach with palm trees, apparently where the doctor can retire — with my wife and me — when the lawyers finish with the driver who bent our fender. Some are really helpful. I learn how to say “neck pain” in Spanish — dolor de cuello — which will come in handy while recuperating in Cancun.

Amazed at how fast news of our misfortune traveled, I call Bob Fey, a spokesman for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. Cops file accident reports from laptops in their cars, he explains. Used to be, they waited until the end of their shift to write them in longhand, which few could decipher.

But, I remind Fey, the police department charges $2 to obtain a report online, even if it’s your own. Considering the hundreds of accidents a day in Charlotte, lawyers and chiropractors don’t pay for each report, do they? They do. “I guess they figure they’re going to get lucky,” a veteran in the records division informs me. “Doesn’t take but one case and …” But how can they get the information so quickly?

The records are public. Enter the entrepreneurs. They download the day’s reports, fork over $2 each — credit cards preferred — and e-mail them to subscribers. One Charlotte cop calls it a cottage industry.

I call all 21 lawyers to thank them for their concern and to tell them how pleased I am to see free enterprise — not to mention the U.S. Postal Service — working so efficiently. After I mention to their secretaries that I’m a reporter, all happen to be busy with clients. Two call back. One leaves a message confirming that his firm subscribes to a service. The other speaks with me.

“We’re in a competitive business and like everybody else, sure, we’re in it to make money,” he says. “Everybody’s doing it, and so are the insurance companies. They contact victims and try to get them to sign releases before they realize what’s going on.” He asks that I not use his name. I’m touched by his humility.