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

Volume 2, Number 43, October 24, 2005 

Many Floridians were already storm-weary before Hurricane Wilma made landfall in Florida today.    

Early reports from emergency management officials indicate that Hurricane Wilma has inflicted damage from the Florida Keys to Naples to Orlando. 

Our thoughts and prayers are with Floridians who are now dealing with flooding, downed trees, damage to their homes and widespread power outages.

In the aftermath of this storm, our immediate focus is the safety of Floridians in the affected areas.  We have already dispatched more than 300 search and rescue officers to Southwest Florida and Southeast Florida.

Our focus then moves to assuring disaster victims obtain emergency funding from their insurance companies for food, water, as well as alternate housing if their home is severely damaged.|

Within 48 hours, we plan to have mobile response units in place in Naples, West Palm Beach and Miami to help consumers begin the recovery process.  These mobile units, staffed with our consumer specialists, will help you contact your insurance company, file an insurance claim, and answer questions about your insurance policy.

Floridians can also call our storm hotline at 1-800-22-STORM.  It will be staffed from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Sunday.

We are here to help. 

We are ready to serve. 

And together, we will work towards a successful recovery process

                                    -- Tom Gallagher


GALLAGHER MOBILIZES SEARCH AND RESCUE, CONSUMER ASSISTANCE TO AREAS IMPACTED BY HURRICANE WILMA

Tom Gallagher, Florida’s state fire marshal, said more than 300 search and rescue officers are now fanning out in the southwest Florida area and are heading toward southeast Florida and the Keys to assist in search and rescue.

In addition, Gallagher said the Department of Financial Services’ consumer assistance specialists and mobile response units have been dispatched to set up tomorrow in Naples, West Palm Beach, and Miami to help hurricane victims begin the recovery process.  Gallagher said consumers can also obtain assistance by calling the department’s Hurricane Hotline at 1-800-22-STORM from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

“This hurricane inflicted widespread damage, and a lot of people will need immediate assistance,” said Gallagher, who oversees the department. “Our thoughts and prayers are with our friends and neighbors who have been hit by the storm. The primary concern is the health and safety of those who are in the affected areas; then we will work to help them get resources to repair homes and businesses.” 

The State Fire Marshal’s Office joined members of other state agencies on Saturday in Miami, Orlando and Tampa so they could be ready to move into affected areas as soon as the storm passes to begin search and rescue missions.  Other team members include representatives of the Fish and Wildlife Commission, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Office of Agricultural Law Enforcement and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.  Law enforcement officers from the department’s Division of Insurance Fraud are also standing by to assist with law enforcement functions.

Noting most deaths and injuries happen in the aftermath of a storm, Gallagher offered the following suggestions to help residents stay safe:

•           Use generators with extreme caution.  Do not use them indoors or in garages.  Keep them outdoors where fumes cannot enter the home and keep them dry.  Do not refuel generators until they have a chance to cool off. 
•           Use flashlights instead of candles.
•           Only repair property damage if it is safe to do so and avoid climbing trees and going onto roofs. 
•           Keep away from standing water and make sure children do not play near water.  Deaths from drowning and electrocution are very common following storms. 

Gallagher also provided the following tips and warnings to those with property damage: 

•           Beware of signing contracts with public adjusters. Public adjusters do not work for insurance companies or independent adjusting firms. Public adjusters contract with the policyholders to settle claims and are paid a percentage of any claim settlement.  •           If available, use a credit card to finance emergency repairs and document all transactions. Your insurance policy allows you to make emergency repairs to prevent further damage to your home or its contents. Materials such as plywood, tarp and duct tape used to keep rain from entering your home are reimbursable as well as labor costs to complete repairs. 
•           Keep all receipts and take photographs of the damage, before and after repair, to submit with your claim.
•           Beware of fly-by-night repair businesses.  Hire licensed service and repair people. Beware of anyone offering to help after a storm who wants cash only. Call the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation at (850) 487-1395, or go to www.state.fl.us/dbpr to make sure contractors are licensed or to file a complaint.
•           Beware of fraud.  If you suspect insurance fraud, call the DFS Fraud Hotline toll-free at 1-800-378-0445.
•           Immediately report property damage to your insurance agent and company. Your company will issue a special reference number for your claim — make sure you write it down. You will need to keep this number handy in all your dealings with the company. Your agent or company should arrange for a licensed insurance adjuster to visit your property and assess the damage.
•           The additional living expense feature of homeowners policies pays some expenses for covered losses that leave homes so damaged that residents can’t live there during repairs. Keep all receipts during this period.  


FLORIDA SENIORS URGED TO BEWARE OF SCAMS WHEN CHOOSING NEW MEDICARE PRESCRIPTION COVERAGE

One-Stop Shopping for Information and Resources Made Available

With the start date for enrolling in the new Medicare Part D prescription drug program less than a month away, Tom Gallagher, Florida’s chief financial officer reported that his department’s consumer helpline is getting calls from Floridians looking for help signing up for the new coverage. Also, incidents of possible scams to take advantage of seniors have been reported by Medicare officials.             

“I am deeply concerned that scam artists will exploit seniors interested in new options under Medicare,” said Gallagher.  “We will aggressively pursue those who attempt to rip off the elderly.  I urge Florida seniors to log onto our Senior Resource Center at www.flseniors.net and to avoid fraudulent offerings.” 

Gallagher said there are approximately three million Medicare beneficiaries in Florida eligible for the new Part D coverage.  But he urged eligible seniors to seriously consider signing up for a Medicare plan unless they have existing coverage that is equal to the Medicare plan.  If an individual lacks coverage and doesn’t sign up during open enrollment, a penalty of as much as one-percent per month could be added to the monthly premium.   

The eight companies awarded contracts by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services were: Electronic Data Systems Corp.; Delmarva Foundation for Medical Care, Inc.; IntergrGuard, LLC; Livanta, LLC; Maximus Federal Services, Inc.: NDC Health; Perot Systems Government Services, Inc.; and Science Applications International Corp.   

Gallagher offered tips to seniors to avoid becoming victims of Medicare Part D scam artists:

  • Beware of door-to-door salesmen. Agents cannot solicit business at your home.
  • Seniors cannot be asked to enroll in a plan prior to Nov. 15, 2005.
  • Seniors should never give personal information unless the person or the product is approved by Medicare.
  • Salesmen are not allowed to ask seniors for personal information when marketing products.
  • Questions about products being offered can be answered at 1-800-MEDICARE.  If fraud is suspected, seniors should call the U.S. Health and Human Services Inspector General at 1-800-HHS-TIPS.

One-stop shopping for website links and toll-free phone numbers to numerous state and federal contacts is available at http://www.flseniors.net/ or by calling the Department of Financial Services consumer helpline at 1-800-342-2762.   


INSURANCE AGENT LOSES LICENSE, MUST PAY $90,000 FINE

Misrepresentation and forgery earned agent thousands in commissions

An insurance agent who misled at least 35 customers, including several senior citizens, in the sale of annuities and forged their signatures to cover his tracks has had his license revoked and has been ordered to pay a $90,000 fine.

Tom Gallagher, Florida’s chief financial officer, last week ordered Clinton Mitchell Alford’s insurance licenses revoked after a formal hearing ended with a Division of Administrative Hearings judge recommending license revocation. The action follows Alford’s arrest in August on one count of scheme to defraud, a first-degree felony, and one count of uttering a forged instrument, a third-degree felony.  He faces up to 35 years in prison if convicted on the criminal charges.

“We will not tolerate anyone taking advantage of our citizens,” said Gallagher, who oversees the department.  “This individual put Floridians at severe financial risk, and one elderly victim died before he had a chance to get his money back.”

Alford, 37, of Louisville, Tennessee, was formerly employed with both Mercantile Bank in Orlando and UVEST Financial Services.  The department’s Bureau of Investigation found that Alford had led at least 35 annuity customers to believe their surrender charge period – the period in which an annuity holder can be penalized for withdrawal of their investment – was much shorter than it actually was. Further, Alford told some customers that the guaranteed interest rate was higher than the actual rate.

To conceal his misrepresentations, Alford forged customer signatures and falsified documents sent to the carrier, Lincoln Benefit Life (LBL), as well as those returning to the consumer from LBL.  Alford earned commissions ranging from $1,300 to $36,000 on the sale of the annuities, earning well over $125,000 in commissions.  LBL agreed to honor the terms under which the customers thought they had bought the annuity products.

To report information about this or another possible insurance fraud scheme, call the department’s Fraud Fighters hotline at 1-800-378-0445.  A reward of up to $25,000 may be offered for information leading to a conviction.



Consumer Services HelpLine
(800) 342-2762