Consumer eViews

Volume 3, Number 50, December 11, 2006

As Floridians prepare for chilly weather and the 2006 holiday season by turning up their heaters and setting out candles and lights, residents should keep safety in mind.

According to the National Fire Protection Association,
73 percent of home-heating deaths are attributed to space heaters.  The association also reports that real or artificial Christmas trees were the first item in the home to ignite in an estimated average of 310 reported U.S. home structure fires per year in 1999-2002.  These fires caused an average of 14 civilian deaths, 40 civilian injuries, and $16.2 million in direct property damage per year. 
This time of year we see a large number of preventable fires that occur in Florida’s homes.  I urge all Floridians to be cautious, have working smoke alarms and fire escape plans.

As state fire marshal, I encourage Floridians to follow these simple fire safety tips:

  • Make sure you have smoke detectors and make sure they work.
  • Create a fire escape plan for your family and practice carrying out the plan.
  • Use flashlights instead of candles if electrical power is knocked out.
  • Plug electric space heaters directly into wall outlets. Do not use extension cords. 
  • Keep space heaters and other heat sources at least 3 feet away from furniture, walls and drapes and never use a space heater in a bedroom.
  • Before using a fireplace, make sure the chimney flue is open so carbon monoxide gas can escape. 
  • If your natural gas is shut off or the pilot light needs to be re-lit, contact your local gas company. Do not attempt to turn the gas on or light the pilot on your own.
  • Water Christmas trees daily.
  • Don’t let tree lights touch needles or curtains. 
  • Turn out lights and snuff candles before going to bed or leaving the house.
  • Keep candles out of reach of children and pets and use sturdy candleholders.
  • Have an operable fire extinguisher readily available.

Education and awareness are critical to help prevent home fires. These tips can help save lives. 

For more fire safety tips, visit or


 -- Tom Gallagher

Greater disclosure requirements in agreement will also improve transparency in broker transactions

Tom Gallagher, Florida’s chief financial officer, Charlie Crist, Florida’s attorney general and governor-elect, and Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty today announced that Brown & Brown, Inc. has agreed to reimburse up to 400 cities and counties in Florida approximately $4.8 million for collecting undisclosed fees or commissions when it placed various coverages with insurance companies. Brown & Brown, a Florida-based insurance broker, has also agreed to adhere to stricter disclosure requirements in its broker transactions.

“Brown & Brown has fully cooperated with our agencies to reimburse cities and counties in Florida for excess fees and commissions it collected and has agreed to fully disclose all fees and commissions in the future,” Gallagher said. Gallagher said that the widespread investigation of Florida’s insurance brokers and companies is positively changing the way the insurance industry does business.

“Insurance brokers and companies must realize that the people come first,” Crist said. “This settlement is another important step in eliminating hidden charges in this industry.”

“The enhanced disclosure requirements as a result of this agreement will ensure greater transparency in broker transactions for Floridians,” McCarty said.

The $4.8 million in refunds are the result of a two-year joint investigation into insurance broker activities conducted by the Department of Financial Services, which Gallagher oversees, the Office of the Attorney General and the Office of Insurance Regulation. Brown & Brown is also paying $1 million to the investigative agencies for reimbursement of investigative costs. Under the settlement, the broker denied wrongdoing but agreed to reimburse its clients without any formal action taken by the three state agencies.


Alex Sink, elected to serve as Florida’s chief financial officer beginning January 2, 2007, announced today that she has appointed Leslie “Les” Hallman to serve as the new director of the State Fire Marshal’s Office. Hallman, a 25-year veteran in fire and rescue services, law enforcement and emergency management, will assume his new duties next month.

“Les Hallman will be an outstanding addition to our team,” said Sink, who as CFO will also hold the title of state fire marshal. “He has the knowledge and experience and shares my commitment to protecting Floridians, promoting fire safety and aggressively investigating arson.”

As director of the Division of State Fire Marshal, Hallman will oversee four bureaus: the Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigations, a sworn law enforcement agency; the Bureau of Fire Prevention, the Bureau of Fire Standards and Training, and the Bureau of Forensic Fire and Explosives Analysis (the Arson Laboratory).

For the last 12 years, Hallman has served as fire chief for the South Walton Fire District, overseeing five fire stations with 120 personnel and a $16 million budget. During his tenure, he incorporated a fire-based EMS in Walton County and helped obtain the first medical/rescue helicopter for the area.

In 2001, he was awarded the State Award for Administrative Excellence in EMS from the Florida Association of EMS. He is on the board of directors of the Florida Fire Chiefs Association and serves as vice chairman of the Florida Firefighters Employment Standards and Training Council.

From 1995 to 1996, he was fire chief of the Tavares Fire/Rescue Department, and from 1993 to 1995 he was a member of the management staff at the City of Orlando Fire Department, assisting in the development of the nation’s first Citizens Fire Academy, a hands-on community outreach program. He formerly served as a relief engineer/firefighter EMT with Orange County Fire Rescue Division, relief officer/Firefighter EMT with the South Okaloosa Fire Rescue Districts and as fire chief of the Thomas Drive Volunteer Fire Department in Panama City Beach.

Hallman will be replacing Rand Napoli, who is retiring after more than 30 years in fire services.

“Florida has one of the most advanced response systems in the country, and I am pleased that CFO-elect Sink has chosen someone with a strong record of involvement in and commitment to fire and emergency services in our communities,” Gallagher said.


Tom Gallagher, Florida’s chief financial officer, announced the arrest of the owner and operator of Ron Mor Drywall, Inc. on a charge of workers’ compensation premium fraud for allegedly underreporting payroll to his workers’ compensation carrier to avoid more than $67,000 in premiums.

Ronald Salvatore Mauro, 64, of South Palm Beach, was arrested this morning following an investigation by the Department of Financial Services, Division of Insurance Fraud.  Mauro was booked into the Palm Beach County Jail and faces up to 15 years in prison, in addition to fines and restitution, if convicted.

“Those who avoid paying appropriate premiums create an uneven playing field for other employers and put their employees at risk,” said Gallagher, who oversees the department.  “We are determined to ensure that employers comply with the law and that appropriate action is taken against those who do not.”

Legislative reforms and aggressive investigative and compliance efforts have saved employers more than $1 billion in the past three years, as rates have dropped more than 40 percent since 2003.

The investigation, based on information provided by Zurich North America Insurance, the company’s general liability carrier, and Comprehensive Employers Insurance, (First Commercial Insurance), the company’s workers’ compensation carrier, that Ron Mor Drywall failed to report more than $374,000 in payroll to Comprehensive Employers Insurance during the 2002 policy period.  Investigators said had Mauro correctly reported his payroll, the company would have been assessed $67,501 as premium owed for workers compensation coverage for the 2002 audit period.

The Department of Financial Services, Division of Insurance Fraud, investigates various forms of fraud in insurance, including health, life, auto, property and workers' compensation insurance.  Anyone with information about this case is asked to call the department's Fraud Busters Hotline at 1-800-378-0445.


The Florida Advisory Committee on Arson Prevention (FACAP) has named an arson investigator in the State Fire Marshal’s Office as the organization’s Investigator of the Year.

Detective Chris Scovotto has served with the State Fire Marshal’s Office, Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigations, since 1999, and currently serves in the bureau’s North Region where he is credited with building strong working relationships between law enforcement and the fire service.

In the past 12 months, Detective Scovotto has been the primary investigator in 60 cases.  Fifteen of the fires investigated were determined to have been incendiary, and eight of the cases involved the use or threatened use of a destructive device. Detective Scovotto made arrests in 15 of these 23 cases, resulting in a clearance rate of 65 percent.

Detective Scovotto is recognized for providing prosecutors with thorough arrest information, and his investigative practices have resulted in formal charges being filed in virtually all of his arrest cases.


Are you shopping online for the holidays? U.S. online retail sales this holiday season will increase 23% over last year to reach $27 billion, according to Forrester Research. Almost one-fifth of the consumers surveyed say that the Internet will be the place where they shop the most during the holidays. Consumers of all ages find shopping for holiday gifts online to be convenient, fast and easy.

Shopping on line may be a convenience, but the consumer needs to protect and safeguard personal information while online.  The following shopping tips from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) can help you be a well-informed online consumer. 

  1. Know with whom you are dealing, as anyone can set up shop online.  Confirm the online seller’s physical address and phone number.  If you get an email or pop-up message from the seller asking for financial information, do not reply or click on the link in the message. Legitimate companies do not ask for information via emails or pop-ups.
  2. Read between the lines. Read the seller’s description of the product closely, especially the fine print. Words like refurbished, vintage or close-out may indicate that the product is less than perfect; brand-name items with too-good to-be-true prices could be counterfeit.
  3. Calculate the costs. Check out websites that compare prices, then judge by factoring shipping and handling into the total cost of the order. Then consider these costs in relation to your budget and compare with the cost of shopping locally.
  4. Pay by credit card. DO NOT SEND CASH under any circumstance. If you pay by credit card online, the Fair Trade Act may protect your transaction. Under this law, you have the right to dispute charges under certain circumstances. In the event that your credit card is used without your knowledge or permission, you generally are liable for no more that $50.00 in charges per card. Many companies do not hold consumers responsible for any unauthorized charges made online, and some card issuers may provide additional warranty, return and/or purchase protection benefits.
  5. Check out the terms of the deal, like refund polices and delivery dates.  Can you return it for a full refund? Who pays for S&H or restocking fees?  What is the delivery date?  The law requires sellers to ship items as promised or within 30 days after the order date if no specific date is promised. Can the recipient return your gift? If so, ask that a receipt be included in the package.   
  6. Keep a paper trail.  Print and save records of your online transactions, including the product description and price, the online receipt, and copies of any emails you exchange with the seller. Read your credit card statement when received for unauthorized charges.
  7. Do not send your financial information by email.  Email is not a secure method for transmitting financial information like credit card, checking account, or Social Security numbers.  Make sure the seller’s website is secure, such as a URL that begins with https (the ‘s” stands for secure). Unfortunately, no indicator is foolproof; some fraudulent sites have forged security icons. 
  8. Use anti-virus software and a firewall and update them regularly.  This is necessary for anyone transmitting personal information and purchasing online as an active browser and email user.   Anti-virus software protects your computer from viruses, and possible spam emails sent through your account. A firewall will help keep hackers from using your computer. If you do not have these protective programs, purchase and install them or seek professional assistance to do so. 
  9. Check a company’s privacy policy before doing business. It should let you know what personal information the website operators are collecting and how they are going to use it. If you do not find a privacy policy or if you can’t understand it, consider taking your business to another site that is more secure.    

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