CFO Alex Sink's Consumer eViews NewsletterFLORIDA CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
ALEX SINK'S NEWSLETTER

Volume 6 Number 45 November 6, 2009

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CFO Alex Sink this week continued her efforts to keep jobs in Florida and strengthen local communities so that hard-working Floridians can provide for themselves and their families.

On Thursday, CFO Sink visited with employees of Ascendant Commercial Insurance in Hialeah, where her team’s work last month helped keep over 85 local residents employed after the court liquidated their former employer. While speaking with Ascendant employees and their families, CFO Sink applauded the ability of government to listen to the needs of the people and find an innovative approach to solving our state’s challenges. By successfully keeping these jobs, she prevented a drain of an estimated $7 million from the local economy already facing 15.4 percent unemployment.

Also this week, CFO Sink announced that she had reached out to hundreds of Florida’s financial institutions, from community banks to top lenders, and encouraged them to increase small business lending in Florida, which will help small businesses grow and create jobs in the state. CFO Sink will continue to work to find innovative ways to successfully partner with the private sector, helping Florida’s businesses and workers.


CFO Sink visits with workers after helping keep their much-needed jobs in Hialeah

Sink meets with Ascendant Commercial Insurance, Inc. employees and their families

Florida CFO Alex Sink on Thursday visited Ascendant Commercial Insurance in Hialeah, where her efforts last month helped keep over 85 local residents employed after the court liquidated their former employer. CFO Sink’s effort to keep these jobs prevented a drain of an estimated $7 million from the local economy already facing 15.4 percent unemployment, according to the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation.

“Nothing is more important in these tough economic times than keeping jobs in our state and supporting our communities,” said CFO Sink. “By utilizing an innovative, business-like approach, we were able to save these jobs, support private business, and help Florida’s insurance consumers at the same time.”

While visiting Ascendant, CFO Sink met with employees and their families during an employee appreciation breakfast to thank them for their hard work and talk with them about what it meant to be able to stay employed after the transition.

On August 24, 2009, First Commercial Insurance Company was ordered into liquidation by the Leon County Circuit Court. CFO Sink’s Department of Financial Services was appointed as receiver and successfully negotiated a transition plan for Ascendant to employ many of the former employees of First Commercial and offer replacement policies to First Commercial policyholders. In addition to saving over 85 jobs, CFO Sink’s department was able to protect approximately 15,000 Florida policyholders by successfully negotiating the transition plan.

For more information regarding the Ascendant transition, Floridians can call CFO Sink’s consumer help line at (850) 413-3089 or toll-free at 1-877-My-FL-CFO or visit www.MyFloridaCFO.com.


Unclaimed property phone banks reach thousands

Recently, CFO Sink held the Unclaimed Property Auction in Ft. Lauderdale and announced a net of $1.4 million, the most ever garnered by the annual auction.

As part of the activities leading up to the auction, the Bureau of Unclaimed Property held phone banks in Ft. Myers and Jacksonville to spread the word to Floridians that they may have money or property due to them.

As a result of the Ft. Myers event on October 20, citizens in the Ft. Myers area found 255 unclaimed property accounts totaling $33,622.59. For one week after the phone bank citizens in the Ft. Myers area claimed 3,446 additional unclaimed property accounts totaling $727,687.88.

Totals from the Jacksonville phone bank held this week on Tuesday, November 3, are not in yet, but during the phone bank hours on Tuesday the Bureau took 300 consumer calls. Following the phone bank event 1,003 calls were received on the Unclaimed Property Hotline on Wednesday and 1,205 on Thursday. Normally the Unclaimed Property Hotline fields about 450 daily.

No need to wait for a phone bank in your area - you can look for your lost property or money at http://www.fltreasurehunt.org or call 1-88-Valuable.


Better protections against abusive debt collectors called for by CFO Sink, brings together offices involved

Florida CFO Alex Sink on Tuesday called for changes that would create better protections for Floridians against abusive debt collectors and make it easier for citizens to report unlawful behavior.

These proposals follow a meeting called by CFO Sink held Thursday, October 29, between Office of Financial Regulation (OFR) Commissioner Tom Cardwell and the Chiefs of Staff from the CFO’s and Attorney General’s offices. CFO Sink will advocate for legislative changes and instituting other reforms to better protect consumers.

“There are clear, commonsense changes that are needed to better protect Florida’s consumers against these abusive debt collector practices,” said CFO Sink. “I will continue to work in a collaborative way in order to put real teeth in the law and crack down on abusive debt collectors.”

CFO Sink is calling for the following reforms that will make it easier for Floridians to report these unlawful practices and allow the state to more aggressively penalize these unscrupulous debt collectors, including:

“These suggested reforms are the first of several steps I think we can take to better protect Florida’s consumers and ensure that those who find themselves in financial trouble are treated ethically,” CFO Sink continued.

Consumers who have been victims of these abusive debt collector practices should contact the Florida Office of Financial Regulation at 800-848-3792 or http://www.flofr.com/Director/complaints.htm.


CFO Sink applauds Division of Insurance Fraud work on "Mortgage Fraud Surge”

Florida CFO Alex Sink on Tuesday commended the contributions of her Division of Insurance Fraud in the “Mortgage Fraud Surge”, a nine-month joint effort with the U.S. Attorney Brian Albritton, the FBI and numerous other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to secure as many mortgage-fraud related indictments and arrests as possible.

Representatives from CFO Sink’s Division of Insurance Fraud will join other members of the Mortgage Fraud Surge effort today and tomorrow to announce results from this partnership to crack down on mortgage fraud, coordinated by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida.

“I am proud of the critical role our Division of Insurance Fraud has played in the Mortgage Fraud Surge effort, bringing the expertise and tools necessary to help investigate these crimes, and commend U.S. Attorney Albritton for his leadership,” said CFO Sink. “The rise in mortgage fraud has impacted citizens and businesses throughout the state, and this is a great example of how we can crack down on these scams by working together.”

The Division of Insurance Fraud joined the surge effort in February, to assist participating agencies in identifying, targeting and arresting individuals who commit mortgage fraud.

“Our investigators are tirelessly working on mortgage fraud cases throughout Florida,” CFO Sink continued. “We look forward to continuing a successful partnership with federal authorities here in our state to bring mortgage fraud criminals to justice.”

CFO Sink’s Division of Insurance Fraud made over 800 insurance fraud-related arrests in the last fiscal year, with mortgage fraud accounting for 15 percent of all insurance fraud referrals to the Division. Depending on the estimated loss amount, the Division of Insurance Fraud will pay up to $25,000 for information directly leading to an arrest and conviction. Anyone with information about suspected mortgage fraud is asked to call CFO Sink’s Fraud Fighters Hotline at 1-800-378-0445 or visit www.MyFloridaCFO.com/fraud.


CFO Sink takes lead on encouraging small business lending, commends FDIC changes

Florida CFO Alex Sink on Thursday announced specific steps she has taken to encourage more small business lending in Florida and help create jobs in the state. CFO Sink outlined her plans to support small business lending on a conference call less than two weeks ago.

“With small businesses representing over 90 percent of all businesses in Florida, it is critical to our state’s economic recovery that we do everything we can to support Florida’s small business owners,” said CFO Sink. “I have expressed to Florida’s financial institutions, from our community banks to our top lenders, that I expect them to use everything at their disposal to offer small businesses what they need -- better access to capital.”

CFO Sink took the following steps to promote participation and accountability in the recently announced Small Business Lending Initiative:

During CFO Sink’s discussions with representatives from the major financial institutions in the state, she heard multiple times that there was not enough flexibility with regard to loans backed by commercial real estate as collateral. Given this observation, CFO Sink commended the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) for adopting guidelines on prudent commercial real estate loan workouts late last week.

“The FDIC’s new guidelines will not only help Florida’s businesses get the modifications they need to stay in their establishments, but will increase the amount of capital available to loan to new small businesses,” CFO Sink said. “I heard overwhelmingly from Florida’s lenders that they needed more flexibility in this area and I am pleased the FDIC was able to strike a balance of prudent credit practices and meeting legitimate credit needs.”

Under the FDIC guidelines released Friday, loans to creditworthy borrowers that have been restructured and are current will not be classified as high risk by regulators solely because the collateral backing them has declined to an amount less than the loan balance.

For more information on the Federal Small Business Lending Initiative, visit: http://www.whitehouse.gov/assets/documents/small_business_final.pdf. For more information about the new FDIC guidelines for commercial real estate loan workouts, visit: http://www.fdic.gov/news/news/financial/2009/fil09061.html.


Tips for Navigating the Open Enrollment Process

Sean M. Shaw
Florida Insurance Consumer Advocate

It’s that time again; with cooler weather and football games, comes open enrollment for health insurance and other benefits. Each year many of us have the opportunity to make insurance and other benefit changes for the coming year. As the Insurance Consumer Advocate, I want to provide some tips for you to think about as you review your benefit package:

Your benefit package has a substantial impact on your financial health, as well as, you and your family’s well being. Take the time to thoroughly review your benefits using this guide; do your homework; work through it and ask questions. You will find that there are fewer surprises, less hassle and much more peace of mind.


DFS participates in FDIC foreclosure rescue scam forum

On Thursday, the Department took part in a Foreclosure Rescue Scam Forum put on by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and hosted by Florida A&M University.

As part of the discussion, Outreach Coordinator Tiffany Reeves talked about CFO Sink’s Florida Housing Help workshops that have taken place across the state and emphasized the many community resources available to help struggling homeowners.

“Friends and family members need to share with each other the information about resources that are available in their community through local organizations and partners,” said Reeves. “The important thing to remember is that these resources are free. If an organization or company asks you for money up front, be cautious.”

Florida Housing Help Workshops are free events offered by the Department that offer consumers the opportunity to meet with lenders, legal aid and community resources to find a solution to foreclosure.

For information on Florida Housing Help, visit http://www.myfloridacfo.com/FloridaHousingHelp/ or call the Consumer Services Helpline at (850) 413-3089 or toll-free at 1-877-MY-FL-CFO (1-877-693-5236).

Upcoming Florida Housing Help events:

Saturday, November 7 from 10:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m. Florida Housing Help
Englewood Neighborhood Center, 6123 La Costa Drive, Orlando

Wednesday, November 11 from 5:00-8:00 p.m. Florida Housing Help - Free Legal Clinic
War on Poverty-Florida (inside Gateway Mall), Gateway Mall, 5196-A Norwood Ave, Jacksonville

Saturday, November 14 from 10:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m. Florida Housing Help
Oak Grove Church, 613 Madison St., Port St. Joe

Wednesday, November 18 from 5:00 p.m.-8:00 p.m. Florida Housing Help
Joseph P. D'Alessandro Office Complex (State Building), 2295 Victoria Ave., Fort Myers

Wednesday, November 25 from 5:00 p.m.-8:00 p.m. War on Poverty-Florida (inside Gateway Mall) Gateway Mall, 5196-A Norwood Ave, Jacksonville


suit against internet travel companies supported by CFO Sink

Florida CFO Alex Sink on Tuesday issued the following statement in support of Attorney General Bill McCollum’s suit against Expedia and Orbitz for their failure to remit money back to the state:

“At last week’s Cabinet meeting, I raised my concern that internet travel companies may be pocketing a tax our citizens have already paid out, instead of following the law,” said CFO Sink. “I appreciate that Attorney General McCollum will now be pursuing this action to collect the full amount owed to the state of Florida.”

In mid-October, CFO Sink sent a letter to Department of Revenue Director Lisa Echeverri requesting this issue be brought up during Cabinet, writing that “other states and local governments have brought administrative and legal actions under their statutory schemes to collect tax revenue from Internet travel companies.”

Following CFO Sink’s call to action last week, the Miami Herald/St. Petersburg Times wrote “Only Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink expressed an urgency to resolve the long-running dispute… Sink placed the issue on Tuesday's Cabinet agenda, saying a resolution has languished far too long.” (Miami Herald/ St. Petersburg Times, 10/28/09)


CFO Sink announces arrest of three Clay County residents for setting fire to local Walmart

Florida CFO and State Fire Marshal Alex Sink announced the arrests late yesterday of three men charged with arson for a fire that occurred at a Super Walmart in Orange Park last week.

Ryan Vallish, Joseph Fernandez, and George Greene were arrested and booked into the Clay County Jail on charges of First Degree Arson in an Occupied Dwelling. If convicted, Vallish, Fernandez, and Greene could each spend up to 25 years in jail. The damages from the arson total an estimated $200,000.

Since October 27, 2009 when the arson occurred, State Fire Marshal investigators have been working jointly with the Clay County Fire Department and Sheriff's Office to find the suspects involved in the case.

The store security cameras provided pertinent information to the investigation, revealing three adult males setting fire to items in the sporting goods section of the Orange Park Walmart. The arson took place during normal working hours, placing many employees and patrons in danger. The Clay County Fire Department was called to the scene. The fire was extinguished, and no one was hurt.

In an effort to locate the suspects, the video footage was made public, along with offerings of a reward by the Florida Advisory Committee Arson Prevention (FACAP) for information leading to the arrest and successful apprehension of the suspects. A tip received through the FACAP hotline proved to be critical information and led to the arrest of Vallish.

After Vallish was arrested, it was learned that the other two suspects were Orange Park residents. A tip pointed to Fernandez, who was brought in for questioning and admitted to taking part in the arson. As efforts continued, Greene was identified as the third suspect. With assistance from the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, State Fire Marshal detectives located and arrested Greene.


Hurricane Preparedness: It’s not too late

As Ida churns in the south Caribbean, projection models have it going in any number of directions. If you haven’t already done so, now would be the time to put your plans in place should Ida decide to come your way.

What can you do to prepare? Being prepared to evacuate your home will help to prevent major financial and banking headaches down the road. Here are some steps you can take:

Know Your Insurers. Write down the names of your agent and agency, your insurance company, your policy number and telephone numbers to report claims. Remember that the name of your insurance company might differ from that of your agent, agency or underwriter.

Do you have enough cash? Remember to withdraw money before a pending disaster. Since carrying or keeping large amounts of cash in your home can be unsafe, take out only as much as you’ll need. Financial institutions usually close for at least two days after a direct hit by a hurricane, and ATMs could be out of commission even longer. Be sure to get receipts for cash purchases right before a storm.

Do you have enough credit? Keep and protect a credit card with an available balance of at least $1,000.

Consider paying bills early. If you pay bills by phone or online, try to pay them before a disaster hits, even if they are not yet due. Hurricanes and wildfires could interrupt phone service, causing you to miss payments and incur late charges. If you pay by mail, send payments as soon as possible. The U.S. Postal Service will not pick up mail within 24 hours of a hurricane strike. Keep copies of all payments mailed within three days of a natural disaster, if possible.

How can you safeguard your records? Keep insurance and financial papers in a secure and accessible place like a safe deposit box, or with a relative or friend. Include your insurance policy, inventory records, agent or company telephone numbers for reporting claims, mortgage and other loan contracts and payment records. You might need quick access to this information. If you need to evacuate, take records with you.

Although the end of hurricane season is in sight, Mother Nature does what she wants and Floridians always need to be prepared. It’s never too late to make a plan.


Consumer Corner: Holiday spending plans to keep you in the green

Before Halloween was over, we saw it in the stores – Christmas items and promotions. With everyone talking about the state of the economy, how should you budget for holiday spending?

Set realistic amounts to spend. As a general budgeting plan, decide to spend no more than one to three percent of your take-home income for the holidays. Spend less if you already have over 15 percent of your income committed to debt payments. For instance, $20,000 take-home = $200 to $600; $40,000 take-home = $400 to $1,200.

Plan your shopping. Make a shopping list of people, holiday events, special travel and incidental purchases, such as wrapping paper. When you go into stores, make sure you stick to the items on your list and be disciplined not to make impulse purchases.

Find creative gift ideas. Homemade gifts can be a special way to show you care. Use your creative talents to make special gifts from the kitchen, sewing, craft room, garden or workshop. Spend time instead of money—it will be remembered! Make your own gift certificates for personal services. Families can draw names instead of having to buy gifts for several people. Another great idea is to gift a family heirloom or cherished item. Don’t overlook practical gifts, such as smoke detectors or motion lights. which are especially useful for older people living alone and those who might have everything.

Shop for deals. Shop around before you buy. If the item is over the amount you set, check at least three sources. If possible, shop when you are rested and stores are less crowded. If you are tired, hungry, or stressed, it is easy to make poor choices or buy anything to finish and go home. Ask the retail store employee about hidden discounts or unadvertised coupons or sales. No harm in asking!

The holidays are a joyous time. If you are so stressed about finances and the amount of money you are spending, you won’t have much to be joyous about. Remember, the thought is worth more than the gift, and you can create memories with family and friends during the holidays that will last forever.


My Family CFO: 2009 income tax changes for individuals

First-Time Homebuyer Credit: As a recent first-time homebuyer, you may be able to claim a one-time tax credit equal to the lesser of $7,500 ($8,000 if you purchased your home in 2009) or 10% of the purchase price of your home.

Child-Related Tax Changes: Information on adoption benefits, child's investment income, and additional child tax credit.

Decreased Estimated Tax Payments for Qualified Individuals With Small Businesses For 2009: Qualified individuals with small businesses may be eligible to make smaller estimated tax payments.

Purchase of New Motor Vehicles In 2009: You can deduct the state or local sales and excise taxes imposed on the purchase of a qualified motor vehicle after February 16, 2009, and before January 1, 2010.

Earned Income Credit: The earned income credit amounts have increased for 2008 and 2009.

Economic Recovery Payment Information: Any economic recovery payment you receive during 2009 is not taxable. These $250 payments are being made to most people who receive social security benefits, supplemental security income (SSI), railroad retirement benefits, or veterans disability compensation or pension benefits

Education-Related Tax Changes: Information on education savings bond exclusion, hope and lifetime learning credits, tuition and fees deduction, and student loan interest deduction.

Health/Medical-Related Tax Changes: Information on Archer Medical Savings Accounts (MSAs), Health Savings Accounts(HSAs), and long-term care premiums.

Home/Residence-Related Tax Changes: Information on mortgage insurance premiums, residential energy credits, and sale of main home by employees of intelligence communities.


Saving Energy, Saving Money: Energy Audits Can be a Family Affair, Part 2

Here are a few tips to educate your family about energy consumption, help you save money, and reduce your energy footprint:

1. Carpool! One of our most significant uses of energy and sources of air pollution involves traffic. Not only does commuting utilize enormous amounts of fossil fuels, but it also costs a great deal in terms of human health and time management. Americans spend over 4.5 billion hours per year in commuting alone! William Moomaw, Professor at Tufts University and co-author of several Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, calculated that if every American who drove to work daily was able to carpool or work from home for just one day per week, we could significantly reduce America's carbon emissions by 2050.

2. Recycle! Approximately 85% of all American household waste can be recycled, but most of it is thrown out in haste. Families should work together to tackle household waste by recycling all papers, glass and cans, and re-using certain items around the house. If your neighborhood permits, a compost pile is a great way to recycle food scraps, and to inspire young gardeners in the family. Purchase goods with less packaging, and re-use items such as boxes, string, paper clips, plastic bags, and packing materials. Create artworks from trash for gifts!

3. Audit your household electricity. Turn off lights. Buy power strips to facilitate turning off computers and other electronic appliances when not in use. Buy Energy Star appliances. Can you propose the installation of clothes lines in your neighborhood? Clothes dryers are one of the largest consumers of household electricity, and Florida has a great climate for air-drying clothes.

4. Travel green. When traveling for business or for pleasure, become energy conscious by staying in energy-efficient hotels. As consumers, we have enormous power and influence over the success of green businesses. Plan family vacations to eco-tourism destinations that inspire conservation of natural resources, not amusement centers dominated by plastic, construction and paved surfaces. A camping trip to a Florida state park will not only educate your kids about nature, but represent a fairly low-cost and low-energy vacation.

5. Efficient outdoor lighting.  Consider switching out traditional low voltage landscape lighted with the new LED lighting. A regular halogen lamp has a 4,000 hour life, whereas an LED bulb lasts over 40,000 hours. The LED lighting systems use approximately one quarter the electricity as compared to the old-style halogen lamps. Propose the installation of solar street lights in your neighborhood!

Reducing your household energy footprint is not only good for the planet, but can save money in the short and long term.

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink's Consumer eViews 1-877-MY-FL-CFO