Consumer eViews
FLORIDA'S CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER TOM GALLAGHER'S
WEEKLY NEWSLETTER

Volume 1, Number 13, March 29, 2004


LAW ENFORCEMENT DIVISIONS TRAIN TO HANDLE THE UNEXPECTED

I had the privilege last week of speaking to the Florida Highway Patrol’s 106th graduating class. For many visitors, these individuals often will be their first contact with Florida law enforcement. Ironically, many of the new troopers come from other states themselves and have committed to serve the citizens of Florida. 


On average, Florida gets 800 new residents a day. This kind of influx creates new challenges and new demands for all of us who serve the public.  And, for law enforcement, the events of September 11, 2001, added to what already was a heavy responsibility.

Our department’s two certified law enforcement units know this well and are continuously training and preparing for their heightened responsibilities. 

The Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigations is responsible for the investigation of arsons and arson-related offenses, which puts these investigators at the forefront of responding to and investigating explosions. Our cause-and-origin investigators, including six trained bomb technicians, are recognized as among the best in the nation. The bureau is trained in handling the aftermath of most explosive incidents and has trained more than 2,000 state and local agency and civilian personnel in explosive device recognition, bomb threats, physical security, and post-blast investigations. 

The State Fire Marshal’s Bureau of Forensic Fire and Explosives Analysis, one of only three in the nation, analyzes thousands of fire samples every year submitted by law enforcement agencies throughout the state. Together, the fire lab and bureau are responsible for investigating nearly 8,000 suspicious fires every year.

The Division of Insurance Fraud is responsible for investigating fraud in all lines of insurance.  Investigations frequently involve complex and organized crime schemes and require in-depth understanding of computer science, interstate law and criminal organizations. 

The department’s law enforcement divisions frequently work together on cases involving burning to defraud and work closely with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. For several years the division has led the nation’s insurance fraud bureaus in arrests and convictions and holds an anti-fraud conference every year that draws hundreds of investigators and prosecutors from around the country.

Both of these fully sworn divisions are required to maintain their training and be prepared to respond to any kind of criminal act that may be discovered during the course of carrying our their duties.  Required training includes defensive driving, firearms defense tactics, arrest techniques and other high-liability areas specific to law enforcement officers.  The department law enforcement divisions also participate in the state’s mutual aid agreement to respond to any natural or man-made disaster.

These men and women are on the front lines every day protecting Floridians’ lives and property.  On behalf of the people of Florida, I salute you and your families for accepting this call to serve.

                                                                     --Tom Gallagher
 


GALLAGHER, LAWMAKERS ASK FOR GREATER AUTHORITY TO CURB ABUSIVE PRACTICES USED BY DEBT COLLECTORS

Harassing phone calls at all hours, abusive language and threats of incarceration and physical harm are the impetus for Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher joining state lawmakers, including Senate President Jim King, to promote legislation giving regulators the authority to stop such practices used increasingly by debt collection agencies.  Senator Victor Crist and Representative Gus Bilirakis are sponsoring the legislation (SB 2430/HB 1371).  HB 1371 was passed unanimously today by the House Subcommittee on Banking and Securities.

“Under this new legislation, collection agencies using abusive tactics to collect consumer debt will no longer be tolerated,” said Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, who serves as agency head for the Department of Financial Services (DFS).  “Consumers who contact the department for assistance should not be turned away because there is a lack of enforcement authority to protect them.”

DFS has received hundreds of calls over the last year from Floridians reporting harassing, threatening and frequent phone calls and other correspondence from debt collection agencies.  Current law does not provide regulators with the tools needed to oversee collection agency practices.

“Many Floridians turn to credit cards or loans during tight times,” said Senator Victor Crist, whose version of the bill was recently passed unanimously by the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee.  “But if they get into financial trouble, they deserve ethical treatment by debt collectors.  No one should be afraid to answer the telephone.”

 

“The majority of debt collectors do not engage in abusive tactics,” said Rep. Gus Bilirakis.  “But those who do should not be tolerated.  Floridians deserve more protections against collection agencies who prey upon individuals and families experiencing hard financial times.”

The legislation would allow the department’s Office of Financial Regulation (OFR) to:

  • Investigate a consumer complaint

  • Issue and serve subpoenas to enforce compliance

  • Issue cease and desist orders and refund orders   

  • Impose fines of up to $1,000 per violation   

  • Make telephone inquiries and in-person visits to collection agencies   

  • Enforce registration requirements of consumer collection agencies   

  • Set rules, as necessary, for the regulation of this industry

“Lawmakers’ approval of this bill will help state regulators prevent the abuses we are seeing in the consumer collection industry,” said Don Saxon, Director of OFR.

A consumer from Edgewater, Florida, complained to DFS that a debt collector had posed as a state investigator and threatened to have the local sheriff’s office escort her to jail.  Another said a collector promised to arrest her son, who lives in another state, unless she wired a cash payment immediately.  Hundreds of other Floridians have been verbally abused and threatened, including a family whose young daughter was told her mother would be sent to jail unless they paid their bill.

The legislation would allow OFR to inspect collection agency records and enlist the help of other law enforcement agencies if evidence of fraud is detected.  The legislation would also provide that a violation of the Federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act would also constitute a violation of Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, granting prosecution authority to the Office of the Attorney General.

Consumers who have experienced abusive collection tactics from a collection agency should contact the Department of Financial Services toll free at 1-800-342-2762.

                                       


FLORIDA COMMISSION ON THE STATUS OF WOMEN CELEBRATES WOMEN'S HISTORY MONTH

Members of the Florida Cabinet and Legislature joined the Florida Commission on the Status of Women to celebrate Women's History Month on Monday, March 22, 2004 in the Capitol Rotunda. The event commemorated the accomplishments of Florida's women and celebrated the many ways women strengthen and enrich Florida. The event included the reading and presentation of Governor Jeb Bush's proclamation recognizing March as Women's History Month and remarks from members of the Florida Commission on the Status of Women."

The Florida Commission on the Status of Women is proud to honor and celebrate the many achievements of Florida's women. Women mean so much to our state and our history," says Dr. Patricia Clements, Commission Chair.

The Florida Commission on the Status of Women is a nonpartisan board, statutorily created in 1991 consisting of 22 appointed members. The Commission, through coordinating, researching, communicating and encouraging legislation, is dedicated to empowering women from all walks of life in achieving their fullest potential, to eliminating barriers to that achievement, and to recognizing women's accomplishments. Additional information on the Commission is available from its web site at http://www.fcsw.net.

FOUNDING FCSW BOARD MEMBER ELSIE CROWELL RETIRES FROM THE STATE

Elsie Crowell, Insurance Consumer Advocate in the Department of Financial Services, is being honored this month upon her retirement from public service. Ms. Crowell was appointed by Treasurer Tom Gallagher to the Florida Commission on the Status of Women in 1991, and was elected Commission Chair in 1993, serving two consecutive terms as Chair and eight years on the Commission.

For the past 37 years, Elsie Crowell has been a devoted public servant to the citizens of Florida, Florida Agriculture and Mechanical University, Florida State University, the Departments of Health and Rehabilitative Services, Professional Regulation, Insurance, and Financial Services.

Her career began at FAMU, earning her Bachelor of Science degree in 1967 and her Masters Degree in 1971.

From 1969 through 1984, Ms. Crowell held positions in personnel management for the Departments of Health and Rehabilitative Services and Professional Regulation. In 1984, her selection as Division Director for Examination and Licensure for the Department of Professional Regulation encompassed over 600 career service and contractual personnel.

In 1989, Elsie Crowell was selected by the Treasurer and Insurance Commissioner, Tom Gallagher, as Division Director for the Division of Agent and Agency Services. Beginning in 1991, her service as Division Director for Consumer Services demonstrated exceptional leadership during the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew.

Elsie Crowell has served as the Insurance Consumer Advocate from 1997 to the present and has worked on a variety of consumer issues including easy-to-read insurance policies, workers’ compensation rates, managed-care grievances, but none more admirably than her efforts to prohibit the sale of industrial life insurance policies in Florida.

She has earned respect and admiration throughout her career in Florida. Her family, including two grandchildren, will enjoy having more time with her, and Ms. Crowell  will continue her pursuit of a Ph.D. in Health Policy at FSU. 


3 ARRESTED FOR $1.5 MILLION IN INSURANCE FRAUD

Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher and Attorney General Charlie Crist announced today the arrests of three South Florida residents on charges that they defrauded Chubb Insurance Company with false claims netting more than $1.5 million.

"It is estimated that insurance fraud costs the average Florida family as much as $1,400 a year in higher premiums and higher costs for goods and services," said Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, who oversees the Division of Insurance Fraud within the Department of Financial Services.  "This kind of cost can have a devastating effect on the economy, making it harder for families to make ends meet and harder for employers to maintain jobs and benefits."

Russell Mazer, 45, a Boca Raton businessman; his estranged wife Wendy J. Mazer, 34; and Neil Roeder, 42, a former Chubb insurance adjuster, have been charged with First-Degree Organized Fraud.  Russell Mazer has also been charged with three counts of Insurance Fraud and two counts of First-Degree Grand Theft.  All three were booked into Palm Beach County Jail.

Following a small fire at their Boca Raton home, the Mazers filed their fraudulent multimillion dollar claims with Roeder, who approved the claims after receiving over $20,000 in illicit cash payments.  The insurance settlement provided the Mazers with the funds to raze and rebuild their twenty-year-old waterfront home that had structural problems due to years of seawall neglect.  Additionally, the Mazers inflated claims about damage to home electronics, some of which were not even in their home at the time of the fire, and inflated their daily living expenses, submitting claims in excess of $536,000.  Today, the Mazer home is a vacant lot, and the monies received from the insurance settlement were spent on other things.

The defendants face 30 years in prison for each of the First-Degree charges and a maximum of 5 years in prison for each Third-Degree charge.                                      
 


Florida Department of Financial Services'
Consumer Services HelpLine
(800)342-2762.