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My Florida C F O

Dear Fellow Floridians:

March is Fraud Prevention Month, and as your Chief Financial Officer I am committed to helping you avoid becoming a victim of fraud. It is my job to help protect your hard-earned money from scam artists and help you learn about potential scams. Our Division of Consumer Services hosts our Operation SAFE seminars around the state periodically. Click here to see if a workshop is being held in your area in the coming week.

March also brings the start of the Legislative Session and this year I’m focused on bills that will protect consumers, further the fight against fraud, and promote efficient government. I also look forward to working with the Legislature on several initiatives that will streamline the way we do business at DFS, advocate for standardized hospital billing practices and drive out the fraud that is driving up the cost of insurance in our state.

More information about each of these initiatives is included later in this edition of Dollars & Sense.

It is fitting that Consumer Protection Week aligns with the first week of Florida’s Legislative Session. As elected officials, our first duty is to serve our citizens and ensure that hard-working Floridians who play by the rules are protected against criminals. As a consumer, the basic knowledge of how scam artists work and an understanding of common tactics to be on the lookout for can help you avoid fraud and protect your money. Learning how to invest safely can also assist you in reaching your financial goals and avoid being a victim. Here is more information on some common scams and how you can outsmart the crooks.

I am proud to be able to serve you, the consumer, every day. Together, we can fight back against the criminals and keep your money in your pocket, where it belongs.

Jeff
Jeff Atwater
Chief Financial Officer
State of Florida

News of Interest

Sun Sentinel: CFO Atwater cites Florida's strong comeback

Space Coast Daily: CFO Atwater Offers Tips To Build Wealth, Not Debt

Orlando Politics: Atwater pushing Legislation that would eliminate unexpected health care costs

Tampa Bay Times: Florida exports reached nearly $59 billion in 2014

Orlando Business Journal: Florida among states with highest number of work-from-home listings

Sun Sentinel : Florida's consumer confidence rises for 7th straight month

Fox Business: The True Cost of Auto Insurance Fraud - How We All Pay In Increased Premiums

Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Legislature 2015: The session ahead

March is Women's History Month

Each week this month, we are featuring prominent American women leaders and highlighting their contributions to our country.

Clara Westropp (1886-1965) and Lillian Westropp (1884-1968)


The Westropp sisters, Clara and Lillian, were the founders of America’s first female-run company geared toward savings and loans. The Women’s Savings & Loan Co., which served both male and female clientele, was started in 1922 with the goal of educating women about money. Women’s Savings & Loan, the type of company usually led by men, did exceptionally well during the years of the Great Depression, becoming one of the largest banks in the country before ultimately being bought by Charter One Financial in 1992.

Clara Westropp Lillian Westropp

 

CFO Atwater's Focus During 2015 Legislative Session

During the 2015 Legislative Session, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater is focused on supporting Florida’s workforce, streamlining government and fighting fraud. His legislative priorities include creating a college-to-career pathway for Florida’s insurance professionals and expanding the state’s unclaimed property program.

"I look forward to working with the Legislature on several initiatives that will streamline the way we do business, advocate for standardized hospital billing practices and drive out the fraud that is driving up the cost of living in our state," said CFO Atwater.

CFO Atwater’s legislative priorities are:

Creating a College-to-Career Pathway:
Senator Garrett Richter and Representative Jay Fant have sponsored SB 1222/HB 1133, which creates a college-to-career pathway for those seeking degrees in insurance-related fields. This bill waives state examination requirements based on college course work and successful degree completion and will ensure that Florida produces the most capable and prepared individuals to join the insurance workforce.

Streamlining Government:
The Department of Financial Services supports efforts to modify legislative language that drastically restricts the Department from restructuring its operations. Sponsored by Senator Tom Lee and Representative Scott Plakon, SB 1402/HB 987 will allow the Department to better align its resources and more efficiently.

Advocating for Consumers:
Unexpected costs can arise when consumers seek emergency out-of-network medical care. SB 516/HB 681, sponsored by Senator Aaron Bean and Representative Carlos Trujillo, modifies emergency services billing procedures to protect consumers from these unanticipated and costly expenses by requiring medical providers and health care plans to provide predictable and fair billing for patients who believe they are receiving in-network care.

Supporting Florida’s Workforce:
SB 1060/HB 1013, sponsored by Senator David Simmons and Representative Bill Hager, modifies ratification requirements to workers’ compensation manuals, allowing health providers who treat patients for on-the-job injuries to be reimbursed at reasonable payment rates. This will ensure greater access to care for injured workers and cost containment for insurers and employers.

Expanding Unclaimed Property:
SB 1138/HB 887, sponsored by Senator Jeff Brandes and Representative Jay Trumbull, expands the state’s unclaimed property program to include unclaimed federal savings bonds. The federal government currently holds more than 1.45 million unclaimed bonds, valued at $492 million, belonging to individuals whose last known address was in Florida.

Fighting Fraud:
SB 1306/HB 1127, sponsored by Senator Rob Bradley and Representative Jennifer Sullivan, will aid the Department’s efforts to combat insurance fraud in several ways. First, this bill clarifies vague statutory language and clearly defines reimbursement claims filed by clinics in violation of licensing requirements as criminal violations. Doing so will better enable state prosecutors to successfully prosecute these cases and will serve as a deterrent to those currently engaging in fraudulent behavior. This bill will also allow insurance fraud investigators to better track, predict and curb fraud trends in Florida by providing access to data gathered by insurance companies’ internal special investigations units. Such data regarding the amount of insurance fraud experienced, referred and addressed internally is valuable to insurance regulatory agencies.

Finally, it requires PIP clinics that are currently able to self-exempt from licensure to obtain a Certificate of Exemption, which would allow the tracking of clinic ownership and PIP reimbursements.

CFO Atwater on Consumer Protection Week

As part of National Consumer Protection Week, observed March 1-7, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, along with Florida Office of Insurance Regulation Commissioner Kevin McCarty and Florida Office of Financial Regulation Commissioner Drew Breakspear, reaffirms their commitment to advocating for Floridians. This year’s theme, Your Information Destination: Know Your Rights, provides an opportunity to remind all Floridians of the tools available through each office to help protect themselves and make more informed decisions.

"Protecting the rights and interests of Floridians is our shared goal," said CFO Atwater. "My office provides access to insurance specialists to help consumers 'verify before they buy,' works to help ensure that state dollars are spent transparently and in the most efficient way possible, and the Division of Insurance Fraud is making strides to curb the fraud that is driving up insurance costs in our state."

Through consumer-focused and regulatory programs, the agencies protect the public by ensuring that Florida’s insurance and financial companies, along with their accompanying professionals in our state, follow Florida law and impose regulatory discipline when necessary. Through collaborative efforts, Floridians can expect competitive and stable markets, access resources when making financial and insurance decisions, and know where to report scam artists and incidents of fraud.

"Florida’s insurance consumers are benefiting from a marketplace that is growing stronger and more competitive," said OIR Commissioner Kevin M. McCarty. "This is especially true in the homeowners insurance market where, coupled with declining rates, consumers have more options and choices for coverage than ever before."

"Protecting Floridians is an essential part of what we do at the Florida Office of Financial Regulation. We are committed to smart, efficient and effective regulation of the financial services arena and that means ensuring that the industry is safe for consumers and businesses," said OFR Commissioner Drew J. Breakspear. "The OFR continues to be on the front lines fighting financial fraud and our website is a valuable resource for consumers who are exploring financial literacy."

Together, CFO Atwater, Commissioner Breakspear and Commissioner McCarty offer these simple, yet effective consumer tips to safeguard against financial crime:

  • Do your homework: Fully research any financial or insurance products before buying;
  • Seek a second or third opinion: Inquire with several professionals to find one who listens and understands your individual goals;
  • Conduct a license check: Verify a license of the company or individual you plan to conduct business with;
  • Get everything in writing: Request written information that outlines all contractual agreements;
  • Read before you sign: Read and ask questions to make sure you fully understand the documents you are signing; and
  • File a complaint: If you suspect questionable business practices, say something by filing a complaint immediately.

To learn more about the Department of Financial Services or to reach an Insurance Consumer Specialist, please visit www.MyFloridaCFO.com or call 1-877-693-5236. To report suspected insurance fraud in Florida, please call the Fraud Tip Hotline at 1-800-378-0445. To learn more about the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation, please visit the Office’s Consumer Resources webpage. To learn more about the Florida Office of Financial Regulation, please visit the Office’s Consumer Knowledge Center.

State Fire Marshal’s Office Announces Arrest in Jacksonville Apartment Fire

State Fire Marshal badgeThe Florida Department of Financial Services recently announced the recent arrest of Sandy Bernard Elmore, 35, on felony arson charges related to a Jacksonville apartment fire that occurred earlier this week. An investigation conducted in partnership by the Department’s Division of State Fire Marshal, the Jacksonville Fire Department and the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office determined that Elmore set his estranged girlfriend’s apartment on fire following a domestic dispute.

Elmore faces four counts of felony arson. Additional charges are pending related to the damages caused by the fire. He was arrested and booked into the Duval County Jail. Bond was set at $1 million.

Anyone with information about arson-related crimes in Florida is asked to call 1-877-NO-ARSON. Callers may choose to remain anonymous and may eligible for a monetary reward for information that leads directly to a conviction.

Alachua County Man Arrested for Grand Theft and Unlicensed Bail Bonds Activity

Insurance Fraud BadgeThe Florida Department of Financial Services recently announced the arrest of 33-year-old Tyrone Johnson for grand theft of a vehicle and unlicensed bail bonds activity. An investigation by the Department‘s Division of Insurance Fraud found that Johnson was acting as a bail bond agent despite having his license revoked following an arrest for aggravated assault in 2011. Johnson is also accused of illegally confiscating the vehicle of a client that was used for collateral.

Johnson’s bail bond agent license was suspended and ultimately revoked in 2012 by the Department’s Division of Agent and Agency Services following an incident when he held three individuals at gunpoint during an attempt to locate a bail jumper. As part of the revocation order, he was deemed permanently ineligible for future licensure as a bail bond agent. The recent investigation, however, found that Johnson was unlawfully advertising as a bail bondsman on the Internet as recently as February 2, 2015.

Johnson faces a possible five-year sentence.

Anyone with information about suspected unlicensed activity or insurance fraud is asked to call 1-800-378-0445. Citizens who provide tips can remain anonymous. The Department of Financial Services has awarded nearly $350,000 as part of its Anti-Fraud Reward Program. The program rewards individuals up to $25,000 for information that directly leads to an arrest and conviction in an insurance fraud scheme.

Stop Adult Financial Exploitation

Operation S.A.F.E.Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater invites you to participate in Operation S.A.F.E., Be Scam Smart, a free workshop for seniors, their families, and caregivers.

The Florida Department of Financial Services launched Operation S.A.F.E. (Stop Adult Financial Exploitation) as part of CFO Atwater’s On Guard for Seniors initiative. Be Scam Smart workshops help inform, empower, and protect Florida’s seniors from financial scams and fraud. If you want to make sure your savings are protected, register for this workshop and get a better understanding of how scam artists and scams work.

Be Scam Smart by learning more about:

  • The Psychology of a Scam
  • How to Spot Fraudulent Behavior
  • Common Scams that Target Seniors
  • How to Fight Identity Theft
  • Resources to Keep You Safe

Find out more about us in the About Us section or Register for an upcoming event, including the workshops in West Palm Beach and Miami Gardens.

Florida Economic Briefs

Consumer Sentiment reaches post-recession high in February
Consumer sentiment among Floridians increased in February to reach a new post-recession high. The Florida Consumer Sentiment Index rose 1.6 points over the month, continuing a 7-month stretch of increases. Driving February’s increase was improved perceptions of personal finances now compared to a year ago.
Source: University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research

Florida housing permits up in January
Florida’s housing permits grew to 7,781 in January, up 3 percent over the month (7,543 permits) and up 2.6 percent over the year (7,585). Single-unit building permits increased by 3.4 percent (4,334) and multi-unit permits increased by 2.8 percent (3,447) over the month.
Source: U.S. Census

Outlook on 2015

Outlook on 2015This issue of Florida’s Bottom Line highlights opportunities for 2015, as well as issues from 2014. It includes economic forecasts and expert analysis on Florida from leading economists, along with insightful outlooks on key industries from the industry leaders themselves, including one from Will Seccombe.

Will Seccombe, President & CEO of Visit Florida: I am constantly amazed at how far Florida’s tourism industry has come in the last 20 years and how much potential we have to continue growing. The ceiling for Florida's tourism industry is very high with the combination of: visionary public sector leadership; passionate and Visit Floridaengaged private sector leadership; the best tourism product in the world; over 1 million Floridians who provide exceptional experiences to our guests every day; and, the innovative marketing from VISIT FLORIDA and our industry partners across the state. Given the power of the industry’s momentum, I have no doubt that 2015 will be another record year for visitors, visitor spending and hospitality jobs. Read more.