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

Volume 1, Number 28, July 12, 2004                            

Working with the same great enthusiasm used for investigating fires, the State Fire Marshal’s Bartow office recently got involved in a worthwhile, heartwarming event.  They gave willingly of their energy and time to help build a Habitat for Humanity house in Sebring for a deserving family.

A lieutenant, five detectives, and an office manager pitched in to dig the footers so the house’s concrete foundation could be poured. The first Habitat homeowner in Lake Wales, Selina Strong, worked with the group, giving back to the program that has given so much to her family. As you can tell by the pictures, this group of dedicated volunteers gave with their hearts.

More than 500 people in the Department of Financial Services volunteer their time in the community.

Through our mentoring program, a student is matched with a volunteer who visits the school on a regular basis. The student gets the help and wisdom of the adult mentor.   In return, the Department gives an hour per week of paid administrative leave to each mentor or volunteer in other programs.

Another great program is the Meals on Wheels program, which serves the elderly and house bound in our communities, and our co-workers help by delivering meals. An important benefit, beyond the nourishing meal, is the positive human interaction each recipient looks forward to each time. 

By building a home, mentoring a child, caring for the elderly or helping the environment, volunteering strengthens the community and benefits those in need. And in return, volunteers gain satisfaction through caring and giving. These are important contributions, both economically and socially.

I have had the life-changing opportunity to mentor and serve my community.  I know volunteering has made a difference  -- in my life and, hopefully, in someone else's life.  I applaud those at the Department who volunteer and hope we all find time to give back to our communities.

                  My best,                                                                                                                                                                            -- Tom Gallagher


GALLAGHER TAPS LAW ENFORCEMENT VETERAN TO LEAD FRAUD DIVISION

Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher announced that a veteran law enforcement officer with more than 22 years of municipal and state experience has been tapped to take over as director of Florida’s Division of Insurance Fraud (DIF). 

Eric Miller, who currently serves as chief of the Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigations, will assume duties as DIF director on August 1.  Miller was asked to take on the role when Bob Neumann asked to step down to assistant director, a change that will allow him to move back to South Florida.  As CFO, Gallagher oversees the Department of Financial Services, which includes the State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Division of Insurance Fraud.

“Eric’s expertise will ensure the division maintains its status as the premier agency of its kind in the nation,” Gallagher said.  “I feel honored that two of the state’s most experienced law enforcement officers are leading the division.”

For five years, the division has consistently led the nation’s insurance fraud bureaus in insurance fraud arrests, convictions or presentations for prosecution.  The division is responsible for investigating fraud in all lines of insurance, including auto, health, homeowners, life, and workers’ compensation as well as insurance company insolvencies.

“I look forward to these new challenges and to working with CFO Gallagher to curb the costly crime of insurance fraud,” Miller said. “I am excited to join such an aggressive law enforcement division, and am glad that Bob Neumann agreed to stay on as assistant director so we can continue the division’s good work.”

Before taking on the role of chief of the Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigations, Miller was chief of Florida’s State Park Police, assistant director of law enforcement for the Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Division of Law Enforcement, and Chief of Internal Investigations for DEP’s Office of Inspector General.  

Before that, Miller served over a decade as a municipal police officer, detective, and trainer assigned to units within the functional areas of uniformed patrol, major crimes control, and administrative and technical services.  Miller’s operational experience also encompasses communications interception, police field training, vice/narcotics and dangerous drug investigations, tactical operations, and crime analysis and mapping.  He has received the Bronze Cross for Police Heroism, been named the “Outstanding Young Law Enforcement Officer of the Year,” and has received several meritorious police service awards.  He possesses a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Criminal Justice and a Masters Degree in Public Administration. 

Miller resides in Tallahassee with his wife, Gina, and children Eric, 21, Lauren, 19, Andrew, 13, and Aiden, 5 months. 


STATE RETURNS RECORD AMOUNT OF UNCLAIMED PROPERTY

Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher announces the return of nearly $100 million to owners

The Department of Financial Services continues to return record amounts of unclaimed property to the rightful owners, according to Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher.  Gallagher today announced that during the last fiscal year, the department returned nearly $100 million in unclaimed property funds, surpassing the previous year’s record of $78 million.

Gallagher urged Floridians to search the state’s online database of unclaimed property at www.FLtreasurehunt.org  to find out if the department is holding cash or property belonging to them.  Floridians may also call 1-88-VALUABLE.
“Floridians could be a mouse click or a phone call away from lost treasure,” Gallagher said.

The department’s Bureau of Unclaimed Property is currently safeguarding nearly $1.1 billion in cash and property belonging to Floridians.  The property comes from abandoned bank accounts, insurance proceeds, stocks, dividends, uncashed payroll checks, refunds and safe deposit boxes.  Under Florida law, the holders, such as banks, credit unions, utilities, insurance companies and employers, are required to forward their unclaimed holdings to the state for safekeeping. The state attempts to locate owners or their heirs to return the property.  When efforts to locate the owners fail, public auctions are held to convert safe deposit box items into cash that is held indefinitely for the owners or heirs to claim.

On July 31, 2004, the Florida Department of Financial Services will hold its annual public auction with more than $500,000 worth of unclaimed safe deposit box items.  The auction will be held at the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza, 950 NW LeJuene Road, in Miami.  Funds generated from the auction will go to the State School Trust Fund, which is used for public education.

Bidding requires a refundable $250 cash deposit and valid driver license providing full name and current address.  A catalog of auction items is available at www.FLtreasurehunt.org.


CFO GALLAGHER WARNS AGENTS AGAINST PAYING OR ACCEPTING ‘KICKBACKS’

Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher is warning title insurance agents to earn their business the old-fashioned way, or risk losing their right to do business in Florida altogether.

The Department of Financial Services, which regulates title insurance agents, and the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which regulates real estate agents, have both noted an increase in recent months in the number of complaints regarding title insurance agencies paying financial “kickbacks” to real estate agencies or mortgage brokers in exchange for referrals.

“An agent who accepts a kickback has an incentive to be less than fully open about all of a consumer’s options,” said Gallagher, who oversees the Department of Financial Services. “It is blatantly unfair for consumers to get the short end of the stick when they are making one of the largest purchases in their lives.”

To date, the department has taken action against two title insurance agencies and an agent. Brokers Title of New Tampa, LLC, was fined $10,000, ordered to repay more than $31,000 in improperly collected funds and put on probation for one year. Investigators determined that title agents with Brokers Title were providing kickbacks under the guise of an affiliated business. Also, First Southwestern Title Company of Florida and principal agent Anita Coleman Dana, of Maitland, were each fined $2,500 and put on probation for one year.

Gallagher and Kevin McCarty, Director of the Office of Insurance Regulation, jointly issued a bulletin to all insurance companies and agents selling title insurance outlining the circumstances under which a title insurance agent would be in violation of Florida’s anti-kickback laws. Examples of what title insurance agents are prohibited from doing for realtors include: printing or paying for the cost of printing advertising materials; furnishing or paying for office equipment; providing or paying for cellular phones; providing or paying for fuel for vehicles; sponsoring, hosting or paying for open houses; and paying real estate agents to fill out processing forms in exchange for contracts.

“We are working closely with the Department of Business and Professional Regulation to prevent unfair competition in the real estate and title industries,” Gallagher said.

To file a complaint, visit the Department of Financial Services web site at www.MyFloridaCFO.com or call the toll-free consumer helpline at 1-800-342-2762.


DFS OUTREACH TAKES ITS SHOW ON THE ROAD 
Bureau Helps Prepare Consumers in Case of Natural Disaster

When it comes to hurricane season, even lifelong Floridians can be blasé. After all, they hear the same warnings every year: Take inventory of your household items. Keep copies of your policies. Buy lots of bottled water and nonperishable foods. And so on and so forth.

Yawn.

That’s just the type of attitude that Laurie Cain, Consumer Outreach Chief, Consumer Services, and her staff try to eliminate each and every hurricane season through community outreach programs, expos and other events.                

“Our big concern…is that everyone takes a hurricane warning seriously,” Cain says.

In fact, she says, so many people move to Florida each year--800 to 900 a day, according to CFO Tom Gallagher in a recent news release--that there are now many residents who have never experienced a hurricane. And even many lifelong Floridians have had no direct experience with these natural disasters. Many newer residents have moved here since 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, which had estimated total losses of almost $30 billion.

Cain says that because Florida “has been lucky” during the last few years, many residents may have been lulled into complacency. But the National Weather Service predicts that 12 to 15 tropical storms will form this year, and that six to eight of these will become hurricanes, with two to four of the hurricanes becoming major storms.

Consumer Outreach, which has 11 Service Offices in every region throughout the state, conducts expos and community outreach programs on a variety of topics related to the Department’s mission, such as insurance and financial information, fire safety and senior exploitation. Leading up to and during hurricane season, which runs from June through November, a number of these events focus specifically on being prepared should a hurricane strike.

This year, the Consumer Services Division is helping to spread the word about the value of “mitigation”-- retrofitting the home with features that reduce property damage from windstorms--to homeowners insurance. Most homeowners insurance products offer a discount for including certain protective features in the construction or improvement of their homes.

For the past several years, DFS has partnered with the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH), The Home Depot, the American Red Cross and other organizations to provide Floridians with disaster-preparedness information. Hurricane Awareness Expos are planned this year in Port Orange, Fort Myers, Daytona Beach and other cities throughout the state. The Bureau also conducts programs at libraries, schools, malls and other sites.

During a typical hurricane expo, Consumer Outreach staff hand out home inventory checklists, consumer guides and other materials, and answer consumers’ questions.

“We want people to know we’re a resource for them,” Cain says.

A community outreach program may result from an organization requesting it, or from the Department marketing this free service. These programs are usually more specific, more “one on one” and are tailored to a particular audience.

The main issue, Cain says, is, “Where can we be where people can get to us? We’ll talk to just about anyone who wants to work with us.”

OFR and the divisions of State Fire Marshal and Insurance Fraud often participate in expos and other events with the Bureau, and representatives from private industry also often take part.

In addition to disaster-preparedness information, the Bureau also stresses to consumers the importance of regular financial checkups, and how to avoid financial scam artists, who often prey on people when they are most vulnerable, such as after a natural disaster.

In addition to helping prepare Floridians for natural disasters, DFS is a First Responder—one of the first organizations on the scene in the event of natural disaster. In this capacity, Consumer Outreach personnel, as well as other Consumer Services employees, inform residents of a storm’s status, expedite the filing of insurance claims, and coordinate with law enforcement and other organizations to prevent illegal activity and perform other needed services.

“We have a pretty strong role in a natural disaster—both before and after. We take that role very seriously,” Cain says.

For example, in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, many then-DOI employees were dispatched to Dade County to assist victims.

Cain says she would like the entire state—not just coastal areas—to be ready during hurricane season, as all Floridians are affected by hurricanes, even if indirectly.

“Prepare for a safe season,” she says.


JACKSONVILLE AGENT SUSPENDED FOR AIDING AND ABETTING UNLICENSED INSURANCE SALES AND “SLIDING”

The Florida Department of Financial Services has suspended the insurance license of Jennifer L. Faloon, of the John Beck Insurance agency in Jacksonville, for aiding and abetting an unlicensed person in the sale of insurance and for selling an insurance customer a non-insurance product without the customer’s informed consent.

“Insurance agents who sell coverage without a license or sell coverage from an unlicensed insurance company jeopardize their customers’ insurance,” said Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, who oversees the department.  “We will hold these agents accountable for their actions, to protect Florida’s consumers.”

Department investigators obtained evidence that Faloon allowed an unlicensed employee of the insurance agency to transact insurance business with a customer.  The investigation also revealed that a customer was tricked into unknowingly purchasing a product besides the insurance policy, in this case a “towing and rental contract,” at an additional charge.  This offense, known as “sliding,” is considered an unfair and deceptive business practice. 

Based on this investigation, the department filed an administrative complaint and a hearing was held in February 2004.  Following recommendations by the administrative law judge, the Department issued a final order suspending the insurance license of Faloon for a period of nine months, followed by a two-year probation.

“It’s critical that consumers verify they are dealing with a licensed insurance agent and company,” Gallagher said.  “Verify Before You Buy.”

For more than three years, the department has conducted a statewide public education campaign urging Floridians to verify that they are dealing with a licensed insurance agent and company.  Consumers can call the department’s toll-free consumer helpline at 1-800-342-2762 to “Verify Before You Buy.” 

 

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