Volume 6 Number 11 March 13, 2009
My top priority as CFO is making sure that taxpayers’ dollars are spent responsibly. That’s why I began this week by launching www.GetLeanFlorida.com, a site that allows everyday Floridians to offer their tips to get rid of waste and save taxpayers’ dollars.
I also took some time to highlight my priorities this session. On Tuesday, I was pleased to see my Safeguard our Seniors legislation pass unanimously by a Senate Committee, bringing us one step closer to better financial protections for Florida’s growing senior population.
Because of my concern for Floridians if a major hurricane were to strike, on Thursday I sent a letter to Legislators urging responsible, gradual changes to reduce the state’s hurricane risk and help protect Florida’s homeowners.
I will be following these issues and the spending of your tax dollars very closely this Legislative Session, and will continue to share my thoughts with you!
Chief Financial Officer
State of Florida
In 2006, Bonnie Madden, 81 from Port Richey, purchased two annuities from insurance agent Randolph Kahl-Winter. A year later, her agent engaged in a practice known as “twisting” when he falsely inflated Madden’s net worth and converted her annuities into one annuity policy with a different company in order to generate a $52,000 commission for himself. The agent’s action would have cost Madden nearly $300,000 of her life savings if the Department of Financial Services had not intervened. Yesterday, CFO Sink’s detectives arrested Randolph Kahl-Winter and charged him with Insurance Fraud, a 3rd degree felony, and Grand Theft, a 2nd degree felony for placing Madden into multiple policies, submitting forged documents, and concealing policy information through his business address. If convicted, he faces a maximum prison sentence of five years.
Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink said it is because of Madden, and others like her, that she has teamed up with key lawmakers to push for tougher penalties for unscrupulous agents who defraud senior investors and establish better disclosures and protections upfront for seniors who invest in these products. CFO Sink has heard from hundreds of seniors and their families who say they were convinced to liquidate annuities, CDs, stocks and savings accounts to fund new annuities only to discover these actions robbed them of their savings.
“The number of complaints from Florida seniors about annuities has nearly quadrupled in the last three years,” said Sink, whose department has opened 474 investigations on financial fraud involving seniors, with approximately 70 percent of cases related to annuity and life insurance transactions. “Better financial protections for our growing population of senior residents and tougher consequences for those who defraud our seniors demand our immediate attention.”
On Tuesday, CFO Sink’s Safeguard Our Seniors legislation sponsored by State Senator Mike Bennett (SB 1372) and State Representative Keith Fitzgerald was passed by the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee unanimously.
Under the Safeguard our Seniors legislation, the act of “twisting” or “churning” an annuity to a senior consumer would be a third degree felony, bringing this violation in line with the penalty currently applied to a securities broker-dealer under Florida law. Other protections under the proposed legislation also:
To learn more when purchasing annuities, visit www.FLSeniors.net – updated with a new video highlighting the stories CFO Sink heard throughout the state. Senior Floridians who believe they may have been the victim of annuity fraud should call 1-877-My-FL-CFO or log on to www.MyFloridaCFO.com to file a complaint.
Citing the high level of catastrophic risk exposure Florida faces, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink today laid out responsible guidelines she suggested the Legislature follow when working to reduce the state’s risk and protect homeowners. CFO Sink broke her strategic vision down into four smart and incremental steps in a letter sent today to Representative Pat Patterson, Chairman of the Insurance, Business and Financial Affairs Committee, and Senator Garrett Richter, Chairman of the Banking and Insurance Committee.
“There are responsible, gradual changes the Legislature can make that will begin reducing our hurricane risk exposure and will better protect Florida’s homeowners,” said CFO Sink. “It’s time to start making smart decisions and enacting solutions, so that Florida will be less financially exposed when a major storm hits.”
In her letter, CFO Sink advocated gradual steps, recognizing that Florida property owners cannot afford to bear large, one-time shocks to their homeowners insurance rates, similar to those experienced in 2006. The four suggestions CFO Sink made in today’s letter are as follows:
“We must establish a long-term, strategic vision for addressing hurricane risk,” CFO Sink continued. “I hope to work with my colleagues on the Cabinet and members of the Legislature in a constructive and bipartisan way to make some of these changes in the coming months.”
Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink is expanding the state’s “Get Lean Florida” program to include a new Web site that will provide Floridians an easy place to suggest ways to improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of state government.
CFO Sink’s new and improved Get Lean Florida program will feature the interactive web site, www.GetLeanFlorida.com, and still include the toll-free hotline, 1-800-Get-Lean.
“As an outspoken watchdog for taxpayers, I am enlisting the help of everyday Floridians to crack down on government waste and abuse,” said CFO Sink. “In these tough times, I am fighting against waste and protecting taxpayer dollars here in Tallahassee. Now I’m asking the people of Florida to help me, offer their good ideas, and tell us how we can make Florida get lean.”
The new Get Lean Web site will allow Department of Financial Services (DFS) staff to alert state agencies when suggestions or tips are received. It will also allow DFS to track suggestions and responses and report on the results, to make sure these money saving tips are being used. The Get Lean web site will be advertised through posters in government offices, public libraries, senior citizen centers, hospitals and other locations to notify Floridians about the program.
The Get Lean web site will spur new ideas and help build on efficiencies that state agencies already have implemented. For example, CFO Sink last year consolidated DFS’s eleven consumer call centers into two call centers, resulting in an estimated taxpayer savings of $5 million over five years.
As a result of ongoing investigations into complaints about the sale of unauthorized travel insurance in Florida, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink has notified three travel agencies that she intends to order them to stop selling insurance on behalf of Colorado-based Prime Travel Protection Services, Inc. and any other unlicensed travel insurer. Prime Travel Protection Services, Inc. was run by Jerry Watson in Colorado.
Sink issued legal notices to Palm Coast Travel, of Lake Worth; Vacation Superstore Network, Inc., DBA Best Price Cruises, of Port St. Lucie; and Legendary Journeys, Inc., of Sarasota, charging that they violated state law by selling insurance for Prime Travel, which is not licensed in Florida to sell insurance. The travel agencies have 21 days from the receipt of the Notice to respond. Other travel agencies are currently under investigation and may be named for selling this product.
Travel insurance can protect consumers against costs from unforeseeable circumstances, including trip cancellation, early return and emergency medical needs. Sink advises consumers to get confirmation that the insurer providing travel insurance protection is licensed by the State of Florida (Office of Insurance Regulation) before purchasing the product.
Consumers should also read the fine print before making a purchase, as the policies often contain exclusions for coverage, and obtain a schedule of benefits and a certificate of coverage. If the insurer providing travel insurance coverage is not licensed, claims may not be honored.
Floridians are encouraged to “verify before they buy” and contact the Department of Financial Services with any insurance questions or concerns. To verify licensure or to file a complaint, log on to www.MyFloridaCFO.com or call 1-877-My-FL-CFO (1-877-693-5236).
Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink sent a letter to Senate President Atwater and House Speaker Cretul on Wednesday voicing her strong objection to the “Taypayer’s Bill of Rights” or TABOR (SJR 1906 and HJR 1263). In the letter, CFO Sink outlined the negative impact TABOR would have on Florida’s bond ratings, an issue critically important as the state has already been put on negative watch.
“TABOR’s near-sighted proposals will hurt Florida’s bond rating, something we can’t afford in these uncertain economic times,” said CFO Sink. “We need to ensure our state and local governments have more flexibility, not less, to provide essential services and safeguard Florida’s citizens.”
Last year, CFO Sink sent a letter to the Florida Taxation and Budget Commission outlining the same concerns when TABOR came before the Commission as a Constitutional Proposal. As the state and nation’s economy have only become more volatile and unsettled, CFO Sink’s objections to TABOR are all the more significant.
Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink announced Tuesday that the Florida Housing Help Initiative she launched last year to assist Floridians facing foreclosure is joining forces with Pasco County Community Development, Community United Methodist Church of Holiday, and the United Way, to host a Florida Housing Help Workshop this Saturday from 9am to 2pm in Holiday.
Pasco County homeowners are struggling, with unemployment rates climbing to approximately nine percent and a per-capita income of $27,600, and many Pasco County families are having problems staying in their homes. Saturday’s Housing Help Workshop will include opportunities for homeowners to meet with mortgage lenders, HUD-certified housing counselors, local housing authorities, legal assistance, credit counseling services, and representatives from many other foreclosure assistance programs.
DATE: Saturday, March 14, 2009
TIME: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
LOCATION: Community United Methodist Church, 3214 U.S. Highway 19, Holiday, FL 34691
Pre-registrations are strongly recommended and can be made by calling 1-877-MY-FL-CFO (1-877-693-5236). For more information about this workshop or the FACT Team, log on to http://www.myfloridacfo.com/FloridaHousingHelp/.
The Florida Housing Help Initiative was inspired by CFO Sink’s Financial Action Team (FACT) which she established last year to make sure Floridians get their share of federal assistance fund. FACT Team members represent a broad coalition of financial and housing stakeholders.
Florida Chief Financial Officer and State Fire Marshal Alex Sink on Wednesday congratulated Detective Michael Vitta after he was awarded Investigative Officer of the Year by the State Law Enforcement Chiefs Association at an event in Tallahassee. Detective Vitta, who works in the State Fire Marshal’s Office, Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigations, was chosen from nominees representing the state’s law enforcement agencies that are responsible for conducting investigations that are not done by traditional uniformed officers.
“Arson is a dangerous crime that puts innocent citizens and rescue personnel at great risk,” said State Fire Marshal Alex Sink. “Detective Vitta’s investigative work is a shining example of all the work that’s done by the Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigations.”
Detective Vitta, who is also certified as a Firefighter II and Emergency Medical Technician, has been with the Bureau since June of 2006. He is assigned to the Orlando Field Office which covers Orange, Osceola, and Lake Counties. Prior to joining the Bureau, Detective Vitta served with the Greenacres Department of Public Safety and Parkland’s Public Safety Department. In the past year, Detective Vitta investigated 119 fires, of which 83 were determined to have been arson; as a result of these cases, 13 individuals have been arrested and 11 cases have been cleared by arrest.
In one noteworthy case, Detective Vitta investigated a chain of fires that he discovered had been set by an autistic juvenile. He worked with the child’s parents and, after months of attempts, was able to successfully make the case in court for the child to be placed in an appropriate treatment program rather than a correctional facility.
The Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigations is the law enforcement branch of the Division of State Fire Marshal that assists other state and local fire and law enforcement agencies in the investigation of fires and explosions.
The financial benefits Florida receives from its natural habitats and protected conservation lands were documented in new report released this month by The Nature Conservancy titled “Economic Benefits of Land Conservation: A Case for Florida Forever”. The report can be read here.
“As Florida’s Chief Financial Officer, I am constantly on the look out for what’s in the best interest of Florida’s economy. As this new report by The Nature Conservancy and other environmental groups shows, protecting and preserving Florida’s natural resources with Florida Forever is a great economic driver for our state,” said CFO Alex Sink. “Florida Forever creates jobs and put billions of dollars into our state’s economy, showing that when we protect our state’s natural treasures, we’re really protecting our state’s economic treasures as well.”
Buying a home is one of the most important purchases in a person’s life. Whether you are a first-time home buyer or you have purchased a home before, the process can be complex. Part of home buying is purchasing a title insurance policy to protect the lender granting your new mortgage. Title insurance gives you the peace of mind to allow you to enjoy your home. It protects against defects in the title to your home and places that burden on the insurance company. The Department of Financial Services has prepared a short brochure to explain the advantages of title insurance and to give you a general understanding of the title insurance policy.
Read the new brochure: Title Agents and Title Insurance
In these difficult economic times, people are seeking resources to help them save their homes from foreclosure. However, consumers need to watch out for fraud.
The federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has issued a warning for consumers to be aware that some “look-alike” internet Web sites have been popping up to scam people out of their money. A deceptive Web site has been identified which is posing as HUD; that website is: http://bailout.hud-gov.us/. This site deliberately deceives the public by using the HUD name in the Web address as well as on the site. The Web site tries to dupe people to get their personal information -- known as “phishing.” Since the site has the appearance of an “official U.S. Government Web site”, some people may fall prey to this scam.
Consumers are advised to stay away from this site and follow this link to learn more about foreclosure - Florida Housing Help.
When unemployment becomes a reality, one of the unfortunate results is often the loss of affordable health insurance. Many Florida health care policies are provided through employers. To make sure you and your family have medical coverage, start the process of finding a replacement right away.
If one spouse is still employed and coverage is offered, a good alternative would be to have the working spouse sign up for coverage for the family.
If that isn't an option, paying for health care coverage becomes a new reality, adding the burden of premium expense at the worst possible time -- when you have a loss of income.
Under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) health benefit provisions from 1986, a terminated employee has the right to maintain the same health coverage for 18 months but now the premium, paid in full by you without any contribution from your former employer, can be quite high and often out of budget.
Florida's new "Cover Florida" program is available and is now waiving the six month waiting period for the unemployed. Six private insurance companies have partnered with the State of Florida to offer affordable health insurance coverage. If you have gone without insurance for at least six months – or have recently lost your employer-sponsored insurance, you may qualify for this innovative program. Go to www.CoverFloridaHealthCare.com for more information.
Another alternative is to purchase individual health insurance. You may need to scale back the coverage to save on monthly premiums through a high deductible and/or major medical plan.
Beware of out-of-state group policies that are not regulated by Florida laws - the initial premium may be low, but the coverage may not be there when you need it and the premium may not stay low for long. Always check out the agent and company you are considering through the www.MyFloridaCFO.com Web site.
If the loss of a job has left you with little or no income to pay for insurance, Medicaid may be an option for you. And if you and your spouse don't qualify, your children might.
March 16 to 20, 2009, marks the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's WaterSense program's first "Fix a Leak” week. This will become the week when Americans should remember to check their household fixtures and irrigation systems for leaks.
Did you know that the amount of water leaked from U.S. homes is thought to be more than 1 trillion gallons per year? To give you a perspective, that's about the amount of water used annually by Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami combined!
It might amaze you to know that a showerhead dripping 10 times per minute wastes enough water in a year to run the dishwasher 60 times. Likewise, a leaky faucet or showerhead that drips one time per second can waste more than 3,000 gallons per year.
Here are some of the easiest things you can do to check and repair some common leaks.
The internet offers videos that show how to fix some of the most basic water woes. Good luck and you’ll be happy knowing you’re doing your share to conserve water while saving yourself some money.