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

Volume 2, Number 23, June 6, 2005    

BE A SMART INVESTOR: VERIFY BEFORE YOU BUY

Each year, thousands of Floridians fall prey to financial scams that cheat them out of their hard-earned money or retirement savings.  Helping potential investors get their questions answered before they invest is one way to help protect them from being scammed.

I also believe education and awareness are an investor’s best defense against fraud. The department is reaching out to Florida investors through public service announcements and billboard advertising to share a simple message: Be a Smart Investor: Verify Before You Buy.  

The PSAs and billboards will help direct Floridians to the department’s helpline number – 1-800-342-2762 – where they can verify that a broker, firm or company is licensed to sell investments and how long they’ve been doing business in Florida.  Potential investors can also find out if there are any complaints filed or actions taken against the broker or company they are checking out. 

Potential investors can also use a new on-line tool to verify that a broker or company is licensed by logging on to www.yourmoneyyourlife.org and then clicking on Be a Smart Investor: Verify Before You Buy. The website also offers tips and resources to help investors of all ages and income levels better protect themselves against investment fraud.

If you are thinking about investing in a stock, bond, insurance or any financial product, I urge you to take advantage of these new tools and resources.

                     -- Tom Gallagher


GALLAGHER COMMENDS GOVERNOR, LAWMAKERS FOR ENACTING HOMEOWNERS INSURANCE PROTECTIONS

Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher applauded Gov. Bush and state lawmakers for enacting a new homeowner’s insurance law which provides significant new consumer protections for Floridians. 

“The unprecedented string of four catastrophic hurricanes that Florida weathered last year revealed gaps where homeowners encountered surprises in their policies due to confusing language or inadequate disclosures,” Gallagher said.  “In the town hall meetings I hosted we learned that Floridians wanted simpler and more transparent insurance policies; this law answers that need.”

Alongside Gov. Bush at the signing of the homeowners’ bill, Gallagher said, “Florida could not have asked for finer leadership during last year’s hurricanes than that provided by Gov. Bush.  I was proud to work with him during Florida’s recovery and I am proud to stand with him as he signs this important legislation.”

      The legislation built many new provisions into the Florida insurance code for homeowners, mobile homeowners and condominium policies including:

  • Prohibits non-renewing homeowners’ policies who have sustained hurricane damage until 90 days after the home is completely repaired.

  • Ends the practice of paying only the lower actual cash value for repairs and contents and requires the full replacement cost amount to be paid up front.

  • Creates a mandatory policy checklist that the agent must fill out, detailing what is covered and what is not covered by the policy.

  • Increases to 50 percent the amount insurers must offer to pay for a home that is required to be rebuilt to updated and more expensive building codes.

  • Provides funding for the DFS Consumer Advocate to increase staff to review rate decisions made by Florida’s Office of Insurance Regulation.

  • Requires insurance companies to spell out how much a hurricane deductible could potentially cost a policyholder and requires disclosure of all available discounts.  In December, legislation was passed limiting hurricane deductibles to one per season.

  • Requires a public hearing for requested rate hikes exceeding 15 percent. Orders Citizens Property Insurance Company to institute numerous customer response and service improvements.

  • Requires the development of standard apples-to-apples policies that can be easily shopped and compared from company to company.

  • Expedites the claims process by requiring an insurer to pay a claim or begin communication with the insured regarding the claim within 14 days.

“Now that we have achieved passage of this bill, I am turning my attention to making sure that insurance companies do not misuse last year’s hurricanes to seek unjustified rate hikes,” said Gallagher.  “I have asked Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty to redouble his office’s efforts to provide rigid reviews of any rate requests that are filed.  He has assured me that rate requests that are not actuarially justified will be rejected.”


*CONSUMER ALERT*
FREE ANNUAL CREDIT REPORTS AND CREDIT REPAIR

Your credit record can determine a lot about your financial future, from how much credit you get to whether you are offered a job. That’s why Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher is urging Floridians to take advantage of a new law starting June 1 that lets consumers get free annual credit reports.

“Floridians should carefully check their credit reports for errors and incomplete information,” stated CFO Gallagher, who is spearheading efforts to promote financial literacy among Floridians of all ages and economic levels.  “Identity theft can be stopped early by a thorough examination of the details in a credit report. Good credit is an asset worth protecting.”

Take advantage of the free annual credit reports now available to Florida consumers that can be requested from each of the three major credit reporting services under the federal Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act. Once each year Floridians get to review their credit reports at no charge due to this change in the law that goes into effect today. 

Credit reports contain numerous types of information -- details about debt such as mortgages, consumer loans, credit cards and bankruptcies. Requesting a report will give the consumer the opportunity to find any inaccuracies and correct them. Mortgage lenders and credit card issuers rely on credit reports to make credit decisions and to assign interest rates. Now insurance companies and potential employers are using the reports to decide whether to issue insurance or make job offers.

Make it a habit to check your credit reports on a frequent basis and address any discrepancies or errors that may exist.  Reviewing and managing your credit is important for two reasons. First, if someone has stolen your identity you will know because you will see inquiries and new debt on the report that you didn’t initiate. Second, because many creditors use credit reports to rate your creditworthiness and establish an interest rate, if yours is correct you may save money on loans and other types of credit.

If you find discrepancies in your report, keep these tips in mind when trying to correct information in your credit report: 

  • It is common to receive mail, telemarketing pitches and e-mail from credit repair businesses offering to help upgrade credit ratings, remove bad credit or even acquire a new Social Security number. These promises are aimed at getting more money from those of us who can least afford it — people already in financial trouble.

  • Be cautious of companies that want you to pay for credit repair services in advance or that recommend against contacting a credit bureau directly.

  • Be wary of a company that suggests you try to invent a "new" credit report by applying for an employer identification number to use instead of your Social Security number.

  • Understand that there are possible crimes related to credit repair. For example, you can be charged and prosecuted for mail or wire fraud if you use the mail or telephone to apply for credit and provide false information. It is a federal crime to make false statements on a loan or credit application, to misrepresent your Social Security number or to obtain an employer identification number from the Internal Revenue Service under false pretenses.

  • No one can legally remove accurate and timely negative information from a credit report.

Starting June 1, Floridians can get free reports online at www.annualcreditreport.com or can download the forms to mail in. Call toll-free 1-877-322-8228 to obtain free reports by mail. You may also purchase your credit score for a fee of  $6.95 when you request your free annual credit report.
 


CFO GALLAGHER REGARDING IMPROVEMENTS TO SEX-OFFENDER DATABASE

During a meeting of the governor and the Florida Cabinet, Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher requested that additional key information be made available to the public to protect families from the threat of convicted sex offenders and sexual predators. 

“Just like any parent in this state, my first priority is the safety of my family.  If the state can legally provide me with information I can use to protect my wife and child against the threat of sexual predators, then I believe it should,” said Gallagher. “Commissioner Guy Tunnell and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement have done a great job in compiling a sex-offender database which allows Floridians to check the addresses of convicted sex offenders who live within five miles of their neighborhoods. 

“We should continue to look for ways to arm families with information. In last week's meeting of the governor and Cabinet, I proposed that the make, model, color and license plate number of convicted sex-offenders’ vehicles be added as available information in the FDLE sex-offender database.  I am pleased that the response among the governor, fellow Cabinet members and the commissioner have been supportive so far, and I look forward to working with FDLE on this effort.

“With the recent string of horrible crimes committed against children in Florida, parents are searching for any information that will help them better protect their children.   I will continue to do what I can to ensure the state is making every effort to protect them as well.”
 



GALLAGHER ANNOUNCES WORKSHOPS TO EDUCATE BUSINESSES, OFFICES ABOUT STATE'S UNCLAIMED PROPERTY LAWS

Last year, the Department of Financial Services, Bureau of Unclaimed Property, returned a record $99 million in unclaimed cash and property to 176,000 owners or heirs.  But Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher wants to do more to make sure unclaimed property is returned to the rightful owners or heirs.

 
Gallagher has organized a series of workshops this summer to educate businesses and government offices about Florida’s unclaimed property laws. 
 
“If the state has the responsibility to collect unclaimed property, then we must make sure that all unclaimed property is being reported to us,” Gallagher said.  “Yes, people move and forget about a safe deposit box or their utility deposit, but people also lose track of their property through company mergers and buyouts and I want to make sure that no Floridian loses their property due to company practices.”
 
The dates for the workshops are June 14, 2005 in Orlando; June 23, 2005 in Tampa; June 29, 2005 in Fort Lauderdale; and July 12, 2005 in Jacksonville.  For more information about the workshops, log onto www.fltreasurehunt.org and click on events.
 
The money or property reported to the state comes mostly from bank accounts, insurance policies, uncashed checks, business accounts or safe deposit boxes.  The department advertises a 24-hour website where people can search for unclaimed property for themselves or family and friends. 
 
Cash that is unclaimed is deposited into the state’s education trust fund, and every year the department holds a public auction to sell property that has remained unclaimed for at least three years.  This year’s auction is scheduled for July 30 at the Wyndham Hotel in Ft. Lauderdale.  Auction proceeds also are deposited into the education trust fund and can be claimed at any time.
 
The department is currently holding unclaimed property accounts valued at more than $1 billion.  Owners or their heirs can claim the cash or property for free by logging on to www.fltreasurehunt.org or by calling 1-88-VALUABLE (1-888-258-2253).
 

GALLAGHER WARNS INVESTORS:  VERIFY BEFORE YOU BUY  

Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher announced that he is expanding efforts to promote investor education and protect investors from financial scams. His message, communicated through public service announcements and billboard advertising, is “Be a Smart Investor: Verify Before You Buy.”  

“Each year, thousands of Floridians fall prey to financial scams that cheat them out of their hard-earned money or retirement savings,” said Gallagher, who oversees the Florida Department of Financial Services. “Our goal with this campaign is to protect investors by getting their questions answered before they invest.” 

Gallagher said both the PSAs and billboards will help direct Floridians to the department’s helpline number – 1-800-342-2762 – where they can verify that a broker, firm or company is licensed to sell investments and how long they’ve been doing business in Florida.  Potential investors can also find out if there are any complaints filed or actions taken against the broker or company they are considering.

Gallagher also said that potential investors can use a new on-line tool to verify that a broker or company is licensed by logging on to www.yourmoneyyourlife.org and then clicking on “Be a Smart Investor: Verify Before You Buy.”  The website also offers tips and resources to help investors of all ages and income levels better protect themselves against investment fraud.

“Education and awareness are often an investor’s best defense against fraud,” said Gallagher, who launched a statewide public education initiative last fall to help Floridians avoid debt and build assets.  “Before purchasing a stock, bond, insurance product or any financial product, Floridians should verify they are legitimate investments.”

Gallagher also recommended that potential investors ask for and read the prospectus on any investment, which should provide information about the company’s business plan, and its officers and directors, and investigate the claims made in the prospectus.

 As part of the campaign, billboards will be going up in the following markets:  Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Orlando, Ocala, Gainesville, Ft. Myers, Daytona, Melbourne, St. Augustine, Jacksonville, Tampa, Tallahassee, Ft. Walton Beach and Panama City.  The Florida Outdoor Advertising Association (FOAA) and its participating member companies donated the billboards as part of their statewide public service program.  

“FOAA is proud to offer assistance with this statewide public service effort,” said Charlotte Brand, FOAA President and CEO.

Financial support for the “Be a Smart Investor: Verify Before You Buy” campaign is provided by a grant from the Investor Protection Trust (IPT).  The IPT is a nonprofit organization devoted to investor education. Since 1993, the IPT has worked with the States to provide the independent, objective investor education needed by all Americans to make informed investment decisions. Their website is www.investorprotection.org


CFO GALLAGHER REGARDING THE COASTAL PETROLEUM SETTLEMENT


“Last week, those of us in the Florida Cabinet had our chance to eliminate the threat of close-in drilling near our beaches. We took the opportunity to protect the Florida coastline from oil drilling and preserve our natural treasures for future generations by supporting this measure in the Cabinet meeting," CFO Gallagher said.

“Keeping our coastline free from the threat of oil drilling is good environmental policy and good economic policy," the CFO further stated. "I will continue to support measures that balance both priorities for Florida’s future."

By signing a settlement agreement between Coastal Petroleum Company and the State of Florida, the governor and the Cabinet forever eliminated the potential for oil drilling in Florida waters. All rights and interests in Florida's last remaining oil leases were surrendered in exchange for $12.5 million to Coastal Petroleum.

This issue had been in discussion for more than 15 years, after Florida banned drilling in territorial waters in the 1990s. Coastal's leases dated from the 1940s, when the leases were granted for oil exploration and production within ten miles of the Florida coastline stretching from the eastern panhandle to Naples.



Consumer Services HelpLine
(800) 342-2762.