FLORIDA CFO ALEX SINK'S CONSUMER EVIEWS NEWSLETTER

Volume 7 Number 11 March 12, 2010

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Dear Floridian:

This week, it was announced that Florida's unemployment rate reached 11.9 percent in January, matching the state’s highest-ever unemployment rate. With an historic amount of Floridians struggling right now, it is imperative that we do everything we can to work with our small businesses, entrepreneurs and working families to help them create jobs and grow our economy.

That's why this week I sent a letter urging the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to send important resources to the Florida “Back to Work” program -- because while other states were getting their taxpayer dollars back, Florida's businesses were waiting and ready to go with projects that could put thousands of Floridians to work.

I am pleased that after my call, it was announced that Florida will be receiving a significant amount of the funds ($61.2 million) and I will continue to push for us to get more of our taxpayer dollars back in the hands of Florida's businesses to help create and save the jobs we need - now more than ever.

Sincerely,

Alex Sink


CFO Sink’s Unclaimed Property Bureau Delivers $22 Million in February, Setting State Record

Florida CFO Alex Sink’s Bureau of Unclaimed Property marked the return of the largest amount of unclaimed property ever recorded in state history for the month of February by returning more than $22 million to owners. So far this fiscal year (July 1, 2009 through March 8, 2010) unclaimed property payments have totaled $121.4 million, with the Bureau of Unclaimed Property on pace to return more than $180 million by fiscal year end, which would also be a new annual record.

“In these tough economic times it’s important that Floridians account for every dollar, and sometimes that includes lost or misplaced accounts,” said CFO Sink. “I encourage all Floridians to visit our web site at www.FLTreasureHunt.org. With nearly nine million accounts, the chances are good we are holding cash or property for you, your business, or someone you know.”

Since the program's inception 49 years ago, the Bureau of Unclaimed Property has successfully reunited owners or relatives of deceased owners with more than $1.4 billion in unclaimed property held in Florida. During Alex Sink’s tenure as CFO, the Bureau has successfully reunited owners, heirs and businesses with more than $611 million, 43 percent of all the money returned since the beginning of the program – due largely to aggressive efforts to contact owners.

The Bureau of Unclaimed Property, on behalf of Florida citizens, receives unclaimed funds 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 1-88-VALUABLE.


CFO Sink Regarding Florida Back to Work Program

Florida CFO Alex Sink on Wednesday issued the following statement after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the first installment of $61.2 million in funds for the Florida “Back to Work” initiative. Earlier this week, CFO Sink sent a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius urging the quick disbursement of funds following a report that showed Florida had received almost none of our citizens' tax dollars for the 900 projects lined up by businesses and projected to result in more than 10,000 newly created jobs for Floridians.

“This money is an investment in job creation and economic growth,” said CFO Sink. “I’m glad that after much delay the program is finally able to get to work on getting Floridians back to work. I’m hopeful that the remainder of the $200 million will arrive soon— too many Floridians are out of work and waiting for the opportunity to be hired and trained.”


Delay of Unemployment Compensation Tax Hike Applauded by CFO Sink

Florida CFO Alex Sink on Wednesday released the following statement after Governor Crist signed legislation that will delay massive unemployment compensation tax increases on Florida businesses:

“In these tough economic times, the last thing our businesses could afford was this massive tax hike, and it was important to quickly act to delay this increase,” said CFO Sink. “By postponing the tax increase that both the Governor and Legislature supported last year, our state avoided what could have been a crippling blow to Florida businesses, especially many of our small businesses.”


CFO Sink Speaks to AME Members

On Thursday, CFO Sink addressed members of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church during the annual AME Legislative Day at the Capitol. The AME Church and its members met with different legislators and state leaders throughout the day to discuss issues of importance to them, including protecting funding for Florida’s historically black colleges and universities.

In her remarks to the group, CFO Sink talked about her work to increase accountability in government and protect Florida’s consumers, and she also shared her ideas for growing Florida's economy.  


CFO Sink Encourages Floridians to Participate in Consumer Protection Week

Florida CFO Alex Sink encouraged Floridians to learn more about how to protect themselves from scams by participating in National Consumer Protection Week 2010. CFO Sink’s Department of Financial Services hosted or participated in more than 20 events around the state during this week titled Dollars and Sense: Rated "A" for All Ages.

"In my own Department, we have been working with Florida's consumers to give them the tools they need to protect themselves from financial fraud and make smart financial decisions," said CFO Sink. "From teaching seniors how to protect themselves from scammers to helping Floridians stay in their homes, to advising residents on insurance issues, one of my top priorities is standing up for Florida's consumers."

CFO Sink’s Division of Consumer Services helped nearly 269,000 consumers last year through her Consumer Helpline, recovering more than $22 million in refunds and claims payments for consumers. In addition, Consumer Services provided nearly 1,100 free community outreach programs on a wide range of financial and insurance subjects, including CFO Sink’s key initiatives: Florida Housing Help, for Floridians facing foreclosure and Safeguard Our Seniors, which teaches seniors and their caretakers how to avoid financial fraud. CFO Sink also oversees the Florida Financial Literacy Council which provides a Financial Literacy Library of consumer education programs available around the state.

A resolution presented at Tuesday's Cabinet meeting by Commissioner Charles Bronson recognized this year's National Consumer Protection Week. Consumer Services Division Director Tami Torres (second from the right and standing beside CFO Alex Sink) represented the Department of Financial Services in receiving this recognition. Read the Resolution.

For more information from CFO Sink's Department of Financial Services, including a calendar of Consumer Services events throughout the state, visit www.MyFloridaCFO.com. Consumers who have questions or complaints can also call 850-413-3089 or toll-free 1-877-My-FL-CFO (1-877-693-5236). For more information on National Consumer Protection Week, visit the web site at www.consumer.gov.


Urging Collaboration to Find Best Solution, CFO Sink Commends Movement on Race to the Top Education Grants

Florida CFO Alex Sink applauded Florida’s inclusion as one of 16 states to be named a finalist for the U.S. Department of Education's $4.35 billion in Race to the Top education grants. She urged the Obama Administration to fund Florida's full application, and reiterated her commitment to continued work with all parties involved --including the Florida Department of Education, school superintendents and administrators, and teachers -- to find a solution in the best interest of Florida’s students.

“Given the critical need for a strong education system to grow Florida's economy, I am hopeful we can secure more of our taxpayer dollars from Washington and find collaborative solutions to provide Florida's students with the best education possible,” said CFO Sink. “This announcement brings Florida’s schools one step closer to receiving these much-needed resources, and I will continue to urge the Department of Education to work with our teachers and school officials to find solutions that will have a positive impact on as many of Florida's students as possible."


ICA Sean Shaw Discusses the Effect of Automobile Recalls on Consumers’ Insurance Coverage

Sean Shaw, Insurance Consumer Advocate

The recent congressional hearings regarding the Toyota recall have led many consumers to have questions regarding their automobile coverage in the event of a recall. Automobile recalls happen quite frequently, but not all recalls receive the notoriety and media attention the current Toyota recall is experiencing. Other companies that have issued recalls include Infiniti, Nissan, BMW, Honda, and Acura. Recalls often involve vehicles ranging from older models to current year models.

Consumers should remain alert for an announcement of any recalls affecting their model. There are many internet sites where consumers can check if a recall has been issued for their vehicle. The Office of the Insurance Consumer Advocate recommends visiting the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the U.S. Department of Transportation website at
http://www-odi.nhtsa.dot.gov/recalls/recallsearch.cfm. There, consumers can enter their vehicle make, model, and identification number and receive up-to-date recall information.

Consumers who own cars that have been recalled should keep the following facts in mind:

In response to questions regarding whether or not a recall will result in premium increases for recalled cars, a spokesman for Property Casualty Insurers Association (PCIA) stated that many factors determine premium rates and a recall may not be sufficient to trigger a premium increase.

In addition to other woes brought on by the recall, auto insurance companies that experience recalls may be charged higher premiums from warranty insurers; in turn, these costs may be passed on to consumers.

If consumers have questions regarding their auto coverage, they should first contact their agent or automobile insurer.

Consumers who have further questions regarding auto insurance coverage should contact the Division of Consumer Services within the Department of Financial Services online at http://www.myfloridacfo.com/Consumers/ or by phone at 1-877-MY-FL-CFO (1-877-693-5236), toll-free in Florida, and (850) 413-3089 from out of state.

The Insurance Consumer Advocate is appointed by Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and is committed to finding solutions to insurance issues facing Floridians, calling attention to questionable insurance practices, promoting a viable insurance market responsive to the needs of Florida’s diverse population and assuring that rates are fair and justified.


Fraudsters Ordered to Pay Nearly $1 Million in Restitution in Insurance Fraud Case

Orlando clinic operators paid patients to stage accidents and fake injuries

The Department of Financial Services’ Division of Insurance Fraud (DIF) announced this week that four men who operated an insurance fraud scheme in Orlando have been ordered to pay nearly $1 million in restitution. The men were arrested in 2008 after undercover DIF investigators videotaped the four conspirators participating in insurance fraud and patient brokering at Lancaster Physical Therapy Clinic. The final plea agreement was reached last week.

In 2007, clinic owner Yefim Vizeltir was recorded asking undercover officers to recruit their friends to stage accidents and file for false injuries at the clinic. In exchange, he would pay them $1,500 for each person delivered to the clinic. The officers agreed and began receiving illegal payments from a money laundered account traced to a bank in New York.

Following the conspirators’ 2008 arrests, a case was presented to Office of Statewide Prosecution alleging a money laundering conspiracy which exceeded $100,000 dollars per month for over a year.

The Office of Statewide Prosecution charged the case and negotiated the following plea agreements:

CFO Sink’s Division of Insurance Fraud made over 830 insurance fraud-related arrests in the last fiscal year, and investigates various forms of insurance fraud relating to health, life, auto, property and workers’ compensation insurance policies. Depending on the estimated loss amount, the Department of Financial Services will pay up to $25,000 for information directly leading to an arrest and conviction. Anyone with information about this or any other suspected insurance fraud is asked to call CFO Sink’s Fraud Fighters Hotline at 1-800-378-0445 or visit www.MyFloridaCFO.com/fraud.


Consumer Corner: Be wary of door-to-door solicitors

Homeowners should be caution with door-to-door solicitation by individuals wanting to perform various types of home improvement work. Many times these individuals may not be properly licensed and may be non-compliant with workers’ compensation laws in Florida.

An individual may come to your home offering a service that may or may not be needed, typically a repair to your driveway, your roof or your house’s paint job. The service is offered at a discount due to other close-by work and leftover materials to use up.

Florida Statute Chapter 501 specifically addresses door-to-door sales stating that individuals who engage in certain door-to-door solicitation activities that sell, lease or rent consumer goods or services with a purchase price in excess of $25.00 are required to obtain a home solicitation permit. Failure to comply with this law carries penalties ranging from a misdemeanor in the first degree to a third degree felony.

There are several problems with this type of solicitation. You may end up paying more than the initially agreed upon amount; the work may never get done or may be shoddy; you may not have needed the work to be done and the individual may be unlicensed and non-compliant with the state’s workers’ compensation laws. If an individual gets hurt in this situation, you can be held accountable for any medical expenses incurred.

Senior citizens are more likely to become victims of these solicitations, and should be on the alert and not allow themselves to be coerced into unneeded services. Here are some tips to help consumers deal with this type of scam:

If you have been a victim of a similar crime, please call the Department of Financial Services, Division of Insurance Fraud Hotline at 1-800-378-0445.


Florida Housing Help: Need to Know More about Foreclosure?

Florida Housing Help, a community outreach program, is designed to educate and assist families facing foreclosure. The workshop will include opportunities to meet with mortgage lenders and HUD-certified counselors.

For more about Florida Housing Help, visit http://www.myfloridacfo.com/FloridaHousingHelp/.

Monday, March 15, 2010  Florida Housing Help Workshop The University Area Community Development Center, 14013 North 22nd Street, Tampa, Florida 33613  Time: 5:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.

Thursday, March 18, 2010  Florida Housing Help - Joseph P. D'Alessandro Office Complex, 2295 Victoria Ave., Fort Myers, FL 33901  Time: 5:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010  Florida Housing Help War on Poverty, Inc. 5196-A Norwood Avenue Jacksonville, Florida 32208 Time: 5:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.

For more workshops that include community partners and resources and offer great information for citizens, visit http://www.myfloridacfo.com/Consumers/OutReach/EventsbyCategory.asp.


My Family CFO: Is Your Home Assessment in the Market?

If your home is not assessed properly, you could be paying more than you should in property taxes. With the recent drop in property values, assessed values should be reviewed for accuracy, taking local economic conditions into consideration.

Your county property appraiser’s office has the task of putting a value on your home. This will help determine the amount of tax you will be required to pay. The property appraiser is not; however, the person who determines what your taxes will be. The local government does that when they set the millage rate.

In Florida, property appraisers have a duty to assess your home at “just value.” The property appraiser’s job involves figuring out a reasonable range of values that buyers would pay for a particular property. Property assessments are usually set at the lower end of that range, which is normally around 85 percent. This is a practice used in almost all Florida counties.

If you think your assessment is too high, you can protest your assessment with your county tax assessor. Many homeowners, especially in these challenging times, have been successful in achieving a reduced assessment. The Save Our Homes Amendment cap limits the increase in the annual assessment of homestead properties in Florida to three percent or to the Consumer Price Index, whichever is less. Comparing your assessed value to your neighbors' values may not be realistic due to the Save Our Homes cap.

Because mortgage companies and lenders set up escrow accounts to pay real estate taxes, you may want to advise the escrow department of your lending institution of your new assessed value and provide them with the new tax rate once it is adopted. That way, your lender will have the information necessary to estimate the real estate tax for the new tax year's escrow.


Saving Energy, Saving Money: Recycle your old electronic equipment

Do you ever wonder what you’re supposed to do with old electronic gadgets that are no longer useful or wanted? It’s becoming harder and harder to find people to repair many of our technological wonders, so the question arises how to dispose of them.

While it may be tempting to toss the old stuff into the trash, you should be aware that some companies take back old equipment. So before you toss your cell phone, contact your cell phone provider to see if it has a program to donate old and unwanted cell phones to local organizations. In addition, the Cellular Telecommunication and Internet Association sponsors a website that provides a comprehensive listing of collections centers or donation programs that take wireless phones, chargers, and accessories. That website is: www.recyclewirelessphones.com.

Computer companies recognize that recycling is important, for example, Hewlett-Packard (HP) will recycle any brand computer equipment or HP printing supplies. Likewise, Dell has a program on its web site as does Apple.

If you don’t recycle the entire computer or cell phone, another option is to think about the rechargeable batteries in those products, as well as other products like power tools. Recycling batteries avoids potentially hazardous chemicals from going into landfills and many of the materials are used to make new batteries and stainless steel products. Remember, if it's rechargeable, it's recyclable. For information about local drop-off sites, check out the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation: Call2Recycle.

You’ll feel great about having taken the extra step to convert your old electronic wizardry into reconfigured and refurbished new equipment and at the same time you will have helped reduce the load on the planet.

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