CFO Alex Sink's Consumer eViews Newsletter

FLORIDA CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER ALEX SINK'S NEWSLETTER

Volume 6 Number 5 January 30, 2009

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On Tuesday, State Farm Florida made the announcement that it is planning to withdraw from writing homeowners insurance in Florida and will phase out of the state over the next two years. The announcement led many consumers to seek assistance by calling the CFO’s consumer helpline for information. Along with the toll-free helpline, 877-My-FL-CFO, consumers who have questions about finding a new insurance policy are encouraged to visit the Department of Financial Services Web site for additional information at www.MyFloridaCFO.com.

Fortunately, there are many insurance providers in the state who are committed to helping Florida’s families protect their property and assets, and CFO Sink will continue to advocate for a competitive, affordable insurance market for Floridians.

Our concern goes out to the more than one million Floridians who may need to transition to a new insurance company during the next two years. We have an established team of trained consumer specialists within the department to assist Floridians who might have questions about finding a new insurance policy. The Florida insurance market has become more competitive, and those who are looking for a new plan are encouraged to shop around.

The Florida Market Assistance Plan (www.fmap.org) is a great online referral service that puts shoppers in contact with agents from different companies. Also, CFO Sink encourages Floridians to evaluate the ways in which they may save money on their insurance premiums through home hardening and wind inspections.


CFO Sink urges Floridians to claim valuable tax credit

CFO announces free tax preparation sites statewide for eligible taxpayers

Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink visited the United Way House of Ft. Myers on Friday to promote Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) Awareness Day, a nationwide effort to increase public awareness about the EITC and free tax preparation sites. Millions of low- to moderate-income workers in Florida may be eligible to receive this additional tax credit, as well as free help preparing their tax returns.

The IRS estimates that 20 to 25 percent of eligible taxpayers fail to claim the credit, which could put as much as $4,824 into the pockets of a family with two children, send as much as $2,917 to a family with one child, or provide $438 for a worker with no children. The EITC is the federal government’s largest program benefiting lower earning workers.

“Especially in these difficult economic times, the extra dollars eligible taxpayers can receive through the EITC can make their lives a little easier,” said CFO Sink. “When Floridians sit down to file their taxes this year, I encourage everyone to check to see whether they are eligible for nearly $5,000 in tax relief.”

CFO Sink also said some individuals and families may qualify for the credit for the first time because of unemployment or other changes in their financial, marital or parental status during the past year.

Taxpayers with the earnings of or below $38,646 ($41,646 if married filing jointly) for families with two or more children; $33,995 ($36,995 married filing jointly) for families with one child; or $12,880 ($15,880 married filing jointly) if there are no children should check to see if they qualify. The EITC is a valuable but complex tax break. Free help is available to determine eligibility and assist eligible Floridians with tax preparation at volunteer tax assistance sites or at a local IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center.

The locations and hours of operations of free tax preparation sites statewide are available online at http://www.MyFloridaCFO.com/docs/2009FLSitesCty.pdf.

People visiting the tax preparation sites should arrive prepared with the following items:

To file taxes electronically on a married filing joint tax return, both spouses must be present to sign the required forms.


90-year-old Naples resident cashed in on substantial unclaimed property

Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink on Thursday met with 90-year-old Naples resident Hildegard Hudson, the recipient of a substantial amount of unclaimed funds from the State of Florida’s Bureau of Unclaimed Property. Hudson, who immigrated from Germany at the age of 18 with eleven cents in her pocket, received a ceremonial warrant for her unclaimed  funds at the Options Thrift Shoppe in Naples, where she volunteers regularly.

“I’m so glad we were able to find Ms. Hudson and help her get her money back,” said CFO Sink, who oversees the Bureau.  “I encourage all Floridians to visit our Web site at www.FLTreasureHunt.org. With nearly eight million accounts, the chances are good we are holding cash or property for you or someone you know.”

“I want to thank the state of Florida and our Chief Financial Officer for being so diligent, because it could have taken a very long time,” said Ms. Hudson. “They were very helpful and I hope everyone double checks to see if the state has found their money.”

About the Bureau of Unclaimed Property:

Since the program's inception 46 years ago, the Bureau has successfully reunited owners with more than $1.2 billion in unclaimed property.  During Alex Sink’s tenure as CFO, the Bureau has successfully reunited owners with more than $406 million, which is thirty-four percent of all the money returned since the beginning of the program – due largely to aggressive efforts by the program to contact owners.

The Bureau is currently holding 7.8 million accounts, mostly from dormant accounts in financial institutions, unclaimed utility deposits, insurance benefits, premium refunds, uncashed checks and trust accounts, as well as watches, jewelry, coins, stamps and historical items from abandoned safe deposit boxes.  Unclaimed property can be claimed for free at any time by the rightful owners or heirs by logging on to www.fltreasurehunt.org or by calling the Bureau at 1-888-VALUABLE.  Until claimed, the unclaimed funds are transferred to the state’s School Trust Fund to benefit public schools.  Since the program’s inception in 1961, more than $1.5 billion has been transferred to the fund.


CFO Sink addresses the State of Israel Bonds campaign inaugural

Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On and Israel Bonds President & CEO Joshua Matza expressed their appreciation to Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink after she announced the state would invest $5 million in State of Israel bonds. The announcement was made at the Israel Bonds campaign inaugural, which kicked off with $122 million in new bond purchases.-- an overt expression of confidence in Israel's economy. Florida has invested more than $65 million in Israel bonds over the years.

Minister Bar-on recognized CFO Sink for her leadership, and the State of Florida for its longstanding commitment in the purchase of Israel bonds. He thanked the CFO and legislative leaders for the friendship Florida has continued to provide to the State of Israel, noting that Florida led the nation with progressive legislation providing local municipalities the ability to purchase Israel Bonds.

In 2007, the Florida Senate and House of Representatives passed legislation to divest the Florida pension fund of financial sectors and businesses that deal with governments that foster terror, such as those of Iran and the Sudan.

Addressing over 500 Israel Bonds supporters from the US and Canada, Bar-On announced a major economic infrastructure program that would be funded in large measure through Israel Bonds funding. The Bonds organization has provided Israel with nearly $28 billion since the organization's founding in 1951. Matza emphasized that Israel Bonds would remain Israel's most cost-effective means of raising foreign capital.


CFO Sink honors FSU Rhodes Scholar at Florida Cabinet meeting

Esteemed student to study at University of Oxford, England

Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink on Tuesday recognized the achievements of Myron Rolle, a Florida State University (FSU) graduate who was recently awarded the Rhodes Scholarship, at Tuesday’s meeting of the Florida Cabinet. Rolle is the only football player and the third FSU student to win a Rhodes scholarship in the last four years.

Presenting him with a framed resolution, CFO Sink applauded Rolle’s stellar academic and athletic accomplishments.

“By being awarded the highly competitive and coveted Rhodes Scholarship, Myron has brought immense pride to his family, Florida State University and the people of Florida,” said CFO Sink, who oversees the Department of Financial Services (DFS). “Florida’s young people have a tremendous role model in Myron Rolle.”

The prestigious Rhodes Scholarship program was created in 1902 and is the oldest international study award available to students. Rolle won the scholarship based on his research of the metabolic profile of stem and cancer cells and his development of a program on diabetes and obesity for children at the Brighton Charter School on the Seminole Tribe reservation.

Aspiring to both the National Football League and medical school, Rolle played as a safety with FSU, completed all necessary pre-medical requirements, and was able to graduate in just 2.5 years with a 3.75 grade point average, earning a bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science. Despite helping the Florida State Seminoles reach many football victories, Rolle is postponing his NFL aspirations to study at the University of Oxford.

Rolle was joined at the resolution ceremony by his family and representatives from Florida State University. His mother, Beverly Rolle, is a DFS employee working in the Division of Workers’ Compensation in Tallahassee.

From left: Attorney General Bill McCollum, Governor Charlie Crist, CFO Alex Sink, Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Bronson, Myron Rolle, Beverly Rolle, McKinley Rolle and FSU President T.K. Wetherell.


CFO Sink, NFL players kick off Financial Football

Computer game entertains, teaches young people good financial plays

Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink teamed up with VISA, the NFL, and PLAYERS INC to encourage young Floridians to learn the right plays to secure a strong financial future. Sink was joined by Tampa Bay Buccaneer Running Back Warrick Dunn and New Orleans Saints Quarterback Drew Brees in launching the statewide release of Financial Football, a money management computer game for high school and college students, at the Tampa Convention Center this past Monday.

The event was planned to coincide with the beginning of Super Bowl XLIII week, and students from Armwood High School were happy to help demonstrate the game.“This financial education initiative provides a winning playbook for students’ financial future. Students retain these life-long lessons because they’re being entertained while they’re being educated,” said CFO Sink. “Financial Football is a great start for high school or college students who need to learn the basics of money management.”

“High school kids need to know how to make smart money management decisions before heading off to college or entering the workforce,” said Dunn. “It takes the combined efforts of parents, teachers, and mentors within the community to give teenagers a strong background in personal finance.”

“It doesn’t matter whether you make minimum wage or millions,” added Brees. “If you don’t learn to budget, save, invest and pay bills on time, the consequences can be devastating.”

As Florida’s CFO, Sink oversees the Department of Financial Services, which is responsible for assisting consumers who need information and help related to financial services, including banking, securities and insurance. A former banker for 30 years, including seven years as president of Florida’s largest bank, Bank of America, Sink has made it a priority to educate Floridians of all ages about financial literacy.

Sink oversees the Florida Literacy Council, and has launched two large initiatives – Be the CFO of Your Family and Safeguard our Seniors – that are providing a range of educational services to help Floridians take control of their finances.

The department is distributing nearly 1,000 DVDs of Financial Football to Florida high schools, colleges, universities and public libraries. The game is also available at www.MyFloridaCFO.com and is accompanied by a classroom curriculum. Mobile customers can play the game on their cell phones by texting the word VISA to 24421.

Left to right: Marta Arrington, Bureau Chief for Consumer Services, Tammy Teston, Deputy CFO, Warrick Dunn and CFO Sink.

“Financial Football” is part of Practical Money Skills for Life (www.practicalmoneyskills.com), a free, award-winning, teacher-tested and teacher-approved financial education program that is available in English, Spanish and Chinese. The program contains three comprehensive sections, complete with money management resources and lesson plans tailored for use at home, in the classroom or at work. It also contains an array of tips to help prepare for life changing financial events, from planning for a baby to saving for college and retirement, as well as a number of other budget calculators and interactive games.

The Department of Financial Services has consumer outreach coordinators available throughout Florida to present Financial Football programs or other educational presentations on a range of issues from how to buy auto insurance to disaster preparedness. To schedule a program or to request further information, call the CFO’s consumer helpline at 1-877-MY-FL-CFO (1-877-693-5236).


DFS Detectives Recognized as “Officers of the Year”

On Wednesday, Attorney General Bill McCollum presented the 2008 Attorney General’s Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Award, recognizing the accomplishments of law enforcement officers who have been distinguished as “officers of the year” by Florida agencies and organizations statewide.

Two detectives from the Department of Financial Services were nominated for the award.

Detective Ted Padich, a retired Boynton Beach Police Department Captain, has been with the Department of Financial Services’ Division of Insurance Fraud for over ten years. Having anticipated an increase in mortgage fraud at the start of the housing crisis, Detective Padich worked to develop a streamlined system of mortgage fraud investigation four years ago. In the past year, his investigative work has resulted in seven convictions on four mortgage fraud cases, which led to a combined $1.75 million in court-ordered restitution. He also identified victims of a mortgage fraud scheme in the Orlando area valued at over $8 million.

From left: Deputy Chief Financial Officer Brian London, Detective Ted Padich, and Colonel Vicki Cutcliffe

Detective Michael Vitta is a member of the State Fire Marshal's Honor Guard and represents the office on many formal occasions. During the past year, Detective Vitta investigated 119 fires, of which 83 were arson, and his investigations resulted in 13 arrests in 11 arson cases. In 2007, Detective Vitta began working on a sensitive case when an arsonist was identified as a juvenile with autism. Detective Vitta spoke at the first court appearance and stressed the need for placement in medical facilities as opposed to a correctional setting; thanks to Detective Vitta’s perseverance, the juvenile was placed in a group home in November 2008.

From left: Deputy CFO Brian London, Detective Mike Vitta and Major John Corbett.


CFO Sink puts the brakes on Miami-Dade agent accused of putting dozens of uninsured truckers on the road

Victims urged to verify coverage, assist with criminal investigation

Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink is urging the commercial trucking industry and the public to provide any information that may assist the Department of Financial Services’ ongoing criminal investigation into an agent who pocketed at least $500,000 in commercial auto premiums and failed to place coverage for dozens of truckers, causing them to unknowingly operate without insurance.

Margarita D. Martin, owner and operator of Martin-Argote Insurance Group, Inc., in Medley, has been permanently barred from any involvement in the insurance industry, based on a final order the department issued in December. Sink took expedited action against Martin, including an emergency order in October. The department’s Division of Agent and Agency Services, Bureau of Investigation, also found she forged two letters from a doctor and claimed to have cancer to try to postpone hearings on the allegations.

“The actions of this agent put many Floridian’s jobs and licenses at risk, in addition to putting thousands of innocent drivers at financial risk,” said CFO Sink. “The revocation of this agent’s license will immediately protect the consumer as our ongoing criminal investigation by our Division of Insurance Fraud seeks to hold her accountable.”

Martin sold commercial liability insurance and had customers throughout Florida. Between January 2006 and November 2008, some truckers lost their licenses and even their jobs after having to pay for accidents that occurred during the time they were supposedly insured under policies written by Martin’s agency.

Martin sought to hide her actions by creating three “branch” offices using the names of insurance agents with whom she had no relationship. The three offices were Reliable Insurance Underwriters, Inc. of Jacksonville; Specialized Insurance Solutions, Inc. of Virginia Gardens; and Atlas Permits & Insurance Services, Inc. in Medley. Anyone who did business with Martin-Argote Insurance Group, Inc., or any of Martin’s branch agencies is urged to check their proof of insurance to identify the insurance company, and then can call the CFO’s consumer helpline at 1-877-MY-FL-CFO (1-877-693-5236) to verify coverage.

Anyone with information that may be of assistance in the criminal investigation is asked to call Detective Bill Lee at 954-321-2980.

“I commend our Miami investigative staff, led by Lidia Azcue, for bringing us the evidence we needed to take swift action to protect Florida drivers, including the professional truckers who keep our economy moving,” Sink said.

The Florida Department of Financial Services’ Division of Agent and Agency Services, Bureau of Investigation, investigates violations of law by insurance agents including health, life, auto, property, workers’ compensation, bail bond and title insurance. To file a complaint against an agent call 1-877-MY-FL-CFO (1-877-693-5236) or visit www.MyFloridaCFO.com


CFO Sink investigates St. Petersburg funeral home after receiving disturbing complaints

Emergency action taken after complaints of improper presentation of bodies

Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink today announced she has ordered a St. Petersburg funeral home, which has been the subject of complaints regarding inappropriate presentation of bodies, to immediately cease from providing any embalming and refrigeration services.

Sink issued the emergency order last week against Morning Glory Funeral Chapel of St. Petersburg, located at 3301 5th Ave. The emergency order is based on complaints from two families regarding funeral services last year.

“Funeral homes should be comforting and assisting families, not adding to their suffering. Instead, we have received complaints that are extremely disturbing,” said CFO Sink. “We have issued this emergency order to protect consumers while we continue to investigate and ensure quality services are provided.”

CFO Sink oversees the Department of Financial Services, which licenses and regulates the funeral and cemetery industry through the Division of Cemetery, Funeral and Consumer Services. The department received complaints from members of two families claiming that they saw fly larvae, or maggots, on their deceased loved one’s bodies and that a foul odor emanated from the bodies during funerals.

Consumers wishing to file a complaint about this or another funeral home should visit www.MyFloridaCFO.com  or call the CFO’s consumer helpline at 1-877-My-FL-CFO (1-877-693-5236).


Florida Prosperity Partnership

On January 15 Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink addressed members of the Florida Prosperity Partnership (FPP), an emerging statewide initiative that unites local prosperity and asset building organizations offering free services and making them more accessible to those who need them.

Sink detailed the recent state budget cuts and outlined the effect they would have on local economies throughout Florida. "One in every 10 families in our state is in financial difficulty." Sink told the group. "Now is the time to be efficient, smart and strategic in helping people to keep their money."

FPP formed in the fall of 2008 and evolved from a number of efforts aimed at building financial assets for low and middle income residents. Some of the previous efforts included the establishment of the Florida Assets Building Coalition as part of a four-state effort funded by the Ford Foundation; a regional convening of the National Community Tax Coalition at which Florida participants drafted an initial state action plan; the evolution of the Florida Prosperity Campaign, an alliance of local and statewide groups to promote legislation, and increase access to prosperity services.

FPP is currently exploring the development and implementation of a formal governing body that will link and unify these efforts.

The FPP and its partners include the Federal Reserve Bank Jacksonville; Broward Children Services Council; Human Services Coalition of Dade County, Inc.; Real$ense Prosperity Campaign; Florida Family Network; Central Florida Second Harvest Food Bank; University of Florida, War on Poverty; and United Way of Florida.


My Family CFO

Are you the chief financial officer of your family? Are you always looking out for the best deals, wise investments and smart moves for your family's financial security?

As your family's fiscal watch dog, keep an eye on this column for money-smart ideas from the Chief Financial Officer of Florida, Alex Sink.

If you have a creative way to be fiscally smart, share it with us for this column!

MyFamilyCFO@MyFloridaCFO.com

Idea: Buy one, get one free

In the supermarket, it appeals to us all - especially in the ice cream aisle: buy one, get one free.

In the current economy, this has been taken to the extremes: a Florida car dealer advertised “buy one truck and get a second at no additional charge,” and in California, even houses have been marketed as two-for-the-price-of-one.

An eViews reader suggests: 'Start getting familiar with the "buy one, get one free" scams that we are being inundated with by retailers. One often costs more than two formerly cost. Big cereal boxes come with fewer ounces of contents.'

It may be the case that some prices are increased and contents may be less, but in general, two-for-one deals are legitimately good ways to save.

These promotions are generally a good buy because you are buying both items at 50 percent off the regular price, and this can be an excellent bargain for everyday staples that you are certain to use.

Being aware of the regular or comparable price, however, can help determine whether a get-one-free promotion is a good deal. Some retailers will give you one item at half the price; others will require the full price be paid regardless of whether you take one or two.

From the grocery aisle to restaurants (two meals for the price of one), taking advantage of these offers can be a great way to spend less and get more. It can even apply to travel: many hotels and motels offer a free night’s lodging if you pay for a specified number of nights at the regular price.


SAVING MONEY, SAVING ENERGY Energy tips for Florida families - these actions represent ways to behave kindly toward Mother Earth, AND save money as well as energy. These tips are presented by CFO Alex Sink's science advisor Meg Lowman, Ph.D., on the faculty at New College of Florida. Dr. Lowman has written numerous award-winning books and is an expert on the rainforests of the world.

Composting saves in many ways

Did you know that about 1/3 of the space in landfills is taken up with organic waste from our yards and kitchens? By choosing to compost, a person can accomplish several important goals. First, by composting your material, a person can reduce the amount of waste going into the local landfill. Second, a person will save money by using the compost on your yard and garden instead of buying commercial fertilizers.

Explained briefly, the concept behind composting is to replicate nature’s natural system of breaking down materials into smaller materials, to become a light and fluffy soil known as “humus”. By knowing the right conditions of heat, moisture, air and material, the composting process is sped up and produces great humus.

Most important in getting a good compost pile going is establishing the proper ratio of carbon-rich material (“the brown stuff”) and the nitrogen-rich material (“the green stuff”). The brown stuff includes things such as dried leaves, straw and wood chips. The green stuff includes materials such as grass clipping and kitchen scraps. Achieving the best mix of green stuff to brown stuff is more of an art than science, but a good rule of thumb to start with is 25 parts of browns to one part of greens. Judge the amounts roughly equal by weight. A pile with too much carbon will break down too slowly, whereas a pile with too much nitrogen will smell bad. Remember, carbon provides energy for the microbes and the nitrogen provides protein.

Next week’s article will give more tips for locations for compost piles, times to get one started and the difference between passive and highly managed piles.