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

Volume 1, Number 49, December 6, 2004     
 

Holiday music is playing, lights and decorations have been set out, and folks are bustling to get their shopping done.  Especially because of the busy schedules, I urge us all to take time to reflect on the reason behind all the activity. 

This week, Jewish people around the world will begin the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah.  The traditions and rituals serve not only to honor the past but also to celebrate their faith and hope for the future. 

When the Jews, after driving out their oppressors, prepared to relight the eternal flame and rededicate their temple, it appeared they had just enough consecrated oil to burn for one day.  But moved by faith and hope, they relit the flame and it burned for eight days until the new oil arrived.

During the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah, let us all find ways to rekindle our spirits.  Just as families celebrating Hanukkah will light a flame each day, let’s each spend a moment each day to reflect and relight our own flame of hope and faith.

My best,

                       -- Tom Gallagher


TASK FORCE CREATED TO IMPROVE CITIZENS PROPERTY INSURANCE CORPORATION

TALLAHASSEE-Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher today announced the creation of a joint task force of stakeholders with the goal of making recommendations to Citizens Property Insurance Corporation for improving customer service and returning policies to the private insurance market.

“Thousands of consumers have contacted the Department of Financial Services upset over delays in processing their insurance claims,” Gallagher said. “Though Citizens has made tremendous efforts during the storm recovery process, more is needed to eliminate delays and ensure claims are processed fairly and efficiently.”

Gallagher said he anticipates the task force will recommend ways to improve adjuster response times and reduce backlogs in damage assessments. 

Gallagher also said he supported Citizens’ efforts to encourage private insurance companies to take policies out of the state’s insurer of last resort.

“Consumers deserve more choices when purchasing insurance, and the key to greater availability of coverage is encouraging more companies to do business in Florida,” Gallagher said. “With more than 1,000 new residents coming to Florida every day, we must continue to search for ways to improve Floridians’ access to more affordable homeowners insurance.”

The task force (Task Force on Policyholder Services and Relations to Citizens Property Insurance Corporation), which will meet for the first time on Dec. 8, in Tallahassee, is made up of representatives from the Florida Department of Financial Services, the Florida Association of Insurance Agents, the Florida Bankers Association, the Florida Association of Realtors, the Florida Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, the Professional Insurance Agents of Florida and the Latin American Association of Insurance Agencies.

The task force will also address commission payments for agents placing business with Citizens.

Here is a list of task force members:
 
Pete Dunbar, Chairman - Florida Department of Financial Services
Daniel Baptista- Latin American Association of Insurance Agencies
Skip Boylan - Florida Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors
Steve Burgess - Insurance Consumer Advocate
Karen Chandler - Florida Department of Financial Services
Carol Everhart - Professional Insurance Agents of Florida
John Fleming - Florida Association of Insurance Agents
Scott Johnson - Florida Association of Insurance Agents
Frank Kowalski - Florida Realtors Association
Ed London - Citizens Property Insurance Corporation
Susanne Murphy - Citizens Property Insurance Corporation
Ken Ritzenthaler - Florida Office of Insurance Regulation
Hal Roberts - Florida Bankers Association


AGENT SURRENDERS INSURANCE LICENSES FOLLOWING ALLEGATIONS OF CUSTOMER ABUSE 

A Windermere man has lost his licenses to sell insurance following an investigation by the Florida Department of Financial Services that alleged he took advantage of his clients for his own financial gain.     

Earlier this year, the department filed a nine-count administrative complaint against Michael Harris Lait, 45, of 11449 Lake Butler Blvd.  The department alleged that Lait misrepresented the terms and conditions of life insurance policies to at least one customer and he convinced at least one individual to “cash in” or surrender existing annuity contracts and to replace them causing the customer to pay unnecessary surrender penalties; the practice is known as “churning” or “twisting.”

The department also alleged Lait misled at least one consumer in the sale of an annuity contract, causing the customer to lose $55,000 in policy value as Lait earned a commission that he would not have earned otherwise.

Lait also allegedly took out policy loans against a client’s life insurance policy totaling more than $58,000 without the consumer’s knowledge or consent. The department further alleged that Lait set up the West Orange Children’s Foundation in order to launder insurance premium payments to make them appear tax deductible for clients, and to misappropriate insurance clients’ funds. 

After first requesting a formal hearing to dispute the department’s charges, Lait this month surrendered all of his insurance licenses.  In addition to the revocation of his insurance licenses, the department permanently removed and barred Lait from ever again participating in the business of insurance. He had been licensed as a life, life & health and a health agent since November 1981. 

In addition to the administrative charges, the department’s Division of Insurance Fraud arrested Lait, d/b/a Harris Financial Services, on August 23, and charged him with elder exploitation, scheme to defraud, and fraudulent reporting and accounting of funds for a total of more than $200,000 in consumer funds. Lait faces up to 30 years in prison for each of these felony charges. 

The Department of Financial Services investigates allegations of improper conduct by licensed agents and those posing as agents. Questions about agents or insurance policies may be directed to the department’s toll-free helpline at 1-800-342-2762.  


SWEEPSTAKES FRAUD COSTING FLORIDIANS

Last week, we spoke to a woman who lost more than $400,000 in a phony sweepstakes fraud. Although we have written about this scheme before, the problem never seems to go away.
 

Swindlers know that if they wave a carrot at the end of a stick, some unsuspecting, gullible victim will bite. Because this fraud is alive and well we thought we'd refresh your memory about the red flags of sweepstakes frauds.
 
Victims of sweepstake and lottery swindles tend to be trusting people who like to enter contests. Many victims are unmarried or widowed seniors with access to cash.
 
Victims are contacted over the phone by articulate swindlers claiming to be lawyers, customs officials, police officers or lottery officials. First they convince you to enter a lottery or sweepstakes after you answer a series of qualifying questions. A few days later, they call back and say you won a huge cash prize. The prize can be anywhere from thousands to millions of dollars.
 
After you are convinced that you won, the crooks ask for money. They say that before you can claim your prize you must pay sweepstake-related fees, including federal and provincial taxes, customs duties and insurance. You may also be told you must keep the fact that you won a secret. If you disclose the prize to anyone, you forfeit your prize.
 
The swindler asks you to send the money by courier or wire transfer such as Western Union. If you fall for the ploy, your money is stolen.
 
However, the fraud doesn't always stop there. In many cases, the crooks are just warming up. If you are gullible, they string you along and defraud you of even more. They furnish a variety of reasons why you must send in more money. You may fall for this because of the huge carrot dangling at the end of the stick -- the prize money.
 
To lend credibility to the scheme, swindlers have several different people telephone you over a period of days. Each time someone new calls, you become more convinced that the sweepstake is legit.
 
In some cases, the crooks swindle you even after you discover the ruse. For example, you may receive a call from someone claiming to be a police officer, lawyer, FBI agent or a customs official who solicits money from you under the guise that your lost funds have been recovered.
 
Investigations have revealed that crooks keep meticulous notes about victims, including amounts collected, fictitious prize amounts and mailing addresses where you sent money. Good notes are kept so they can maintain consistency while ripping you off.
 
Catching swindlers is difficult to impossible. They are often located outside of the country. You rarely meet personally with anyone and the people you speak with over the phone use fake names. The thieves use cellular phones, prepaid telephone calling cards, pagers and voice mail services for communications.
 
These prepaid services don't involve subsequent billings or mailings so the user can't be traced. The following is a real-life scenario involving a Florida resident who allegedly won an Australian sweepstakes:
 
The victim was contacted over the phone and told she won several million dollars. She was informed that her winnings were being transferred from Australia to California and then to Canada. After arriving in Canada, the prize money would be sent to her.
 
First, however, she had to mail a bank check for just under $5,000 to a Canadian address. The money was needed to cover costs associated with winning the sweepstakes.
 
The victim mailed the check and a few days later, she was telephoned by a different person who said there were legal snags encountered when transferring the money to Canada. Therefore, she had to send more money to redirect the winnings to Costa Rica. The victim mailed $4,000 more. This scheme continued for about two weeks, with the crooks requesting more money each time. By the time she realized it was a scam, the woman had lost $30,000.
 
Right now, many of these bogus sweepstakes are operating from Canada. Telemarketing swindles are so bad that the Canadian authorities have established a toll free number you can call to report a crime. The service is referred to as Phonebusters and the number is (888) 495-8501. There is a also a Web site: www.phonebusters.com.
 
If you believe you have been defrauded in a telemarketing scheme, there are federal and state government agencies that can help. You can file a complaint with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services at (800) 435-7352. For investments and loan frauds, you can call the Florida Office of Financial Regulation at (239) 338-2445. If the business is outside of Florida, you can contact the U.S. Federal Trade Commission at (877) 382-4357.
Mark Mathosian is a financial administrator with the Florida Office of Financial Regulation in Fort Myers.
 


Consumer Services HelpLine
(800) 342-2762.