Consumer eViews
FLORIDA CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER ALEX SINK'S WEEKLY NEWSLETTER

Volume 4, Number 37, September 14, 2007

Fellow Floridian:

This week, the Department of Financial Services’ Division of Insurance Fraud (DIF) made several arrests, including a husband and wife accused of stealing nearly $8 million from escrow funds held by their title agency. An article inside this week’s edition of eViews provides details of the arrests, including how the investigation revealed the couple allegedly used the funds to supplement a lavish lifestyle.

While every insurance fraud case is different, what never varies is that fraud hurts real people and real businesses and ultimately costs us all. So when we make arrests and hold those who commit insurance fraud accountable, we send a strong message that we will not tolerate anyone taking advantage of Floridians.

Detective Henry Thomas Clark, a longtime investigator with DIF, this week was awarded the International Association of Special Investigation Units’ 2007 Public Service Award. Detective Clark was chosen for the award based on one particular case that has resulted in numerous arrests, indictments and convictions in a $200 million workers’ compensation fraud scheme that left thousands of workers in Florida and across the nation without coverage for on-the-job injuries and families without death benefits.

We congratulate Detective Clark and thank every employee and agency who works with us to protect and serve Floridians.


CFO ADDRESSES THE CHAMBER OF SOUTHWEST FLORIDA

On Wednesday, September 12, 2007, Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink spoke to members of the Chamber of Southwest Florida, addressing the upcoming expiration of Florida’s Motor Vehicle No-Fault Law, property insurance and property taxes.  The CFO also discussed that most homeowners receiving free wind inspections from the My Safe Florida Home program are learning that they are eligible for savings on their wind insurance premiums.  In Lee County alone, homeowners were eligible to save an average of $236 a year, without completing any mitigation efforts on their homes. 


CFO SINK ANNOUNCES MY SAFE FLORIDA HOME FAIR TO BE HELD IN PENSACOLA SATURDAY

Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink announced the My Safe Florida Home (MSFH) program is partnering with Escambia County non-profit organizations and businesses to hold a fair designed to raise awareness about the safety and financial incentives of mitigation.

The MSFH fair will take place at the Pensacola Civic Center on September 15, 2007, from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. CFO Sink is hosting the fair with the Escambia County Commission, Gulf Power Corporation and WEAR-TV. More than 50 hurricane-preparedness exhibits will be on display at the fair, and all exhibits and workshops are free to the public.

“We are taking the My Safe Florida Home program on the road to educate Florida homeowners about the importance of mitigation,” said CFO Sink who oversees the Department of Financial Services. “I encourage every homeowner in Northwest Florida to apply for their free wind inspection and see if they are eligible for discounts on their windstorm insurance.”

Representatives from the MSFH program will be on hand to sign up eligible homeowners for their free wind inspections. Last week, CFO Sink reported that nearly 75 percent of homeowners who have received inspections from the MSFH program have learned they are eligible for a discount of 16.3 percent on their wind insurance premiums. Savings vary by region, and through the program, 1,652 Escambia County residents have learned they are eligible to receive an average windstorm insurance discount of 20 percent or $253.66 annually.

Insurance company representatives will also be at the fair to assist homeowners in understanding which hurricane-resistance measures will best protect their homes and how policyholders can apply for discounts on their insurance premiums. By law, insurance companies are required to offer policyholders discounts on the wind-coverage portion of their homeowner policy premiums for specific measures that reduce their homes’ exposure to windstorm damage. Homeowners are encouraged to bring insurance documentation to obtain information on possible insurance savings through the program.

To date, the MSFH program has completed more than 90,000 free wind inspections. More than 109,000 Florida homeowners have signed up for free wind inspections through the program, signifying the program has exceeded 25 percent of its long-term goal of 400,000 free wind inspections in the next two years. More than 9,500 homeowners statewide have been approved to receive matching grants to make the improvements recommended on their inspection reports. To date, more than 1,000 homeowners have received matching grants totaling more than $3.1 million.

Any Floridian who lives in a single-family, site-built home is eligible for a free wind inspection through the MSFH program, which helps Floridians identify how they can strengthen their homes and reduces the overall potential for hurricane damage in our state. Floridians can apply on-line at www.MySafeFloridaHome.com or by calling the program toll-free at 1-866-513-6734. Homeowners who receive free wind inspections through the MSFH program will receive a detailed inspection report, complete with additional information on estimated insurance premium discounts, if insurance information is provided at the time they applied.

Additionally, some Florida homeowners receiving free wind inspections may be eligible for matching grant reimbursements of up to $5,000 to make recommended improvements. To be eligible, the Legislature requires that homeowners: have received a completed wind inspection after May 1, 2007; live in a single-family, site-built home built before March 1, 2002; have a valid homestead exemption; have an insured value of $300,000 or less; and be located in the wind-borne debris region. Additionally, while the free wind inspections will still cover seven potential wind-resistance improvements, matching grants may only be applied to opening protections, including windows, exterior doors and garage doors, as well as the bracing of gable ends.


CAPITOL AND STATE FIRE COLLEGE REMEMBER SEPTEMBER 11, 2001

In tribute to the fallen of September 11, 2001, a bagpiper played Amazing Grace, a brass bell tolled and firefighters honored the flag. Governor Crist, Lt. Governor Kottkamp and the members of the Florida Cabinet paid their respects in memory of the event of six years ago.

At the State Fire College in Ocala, at 9:59 on Tuesday, September 11, 2007, the apparatus bell sounded 5 gongs, a short pause, then 5 more; another pause, 5 more, pause, and another 5 and then it fell silent.

Staff and students at the Florida State Fire College gathered at the State Fallen Firefighter Memorial in the center of campus to honor those FDNY firefighters that lost their lives in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center (WTC). 2007 marks the 6th anniversary of the loss.

Dave Casey, Bureau Chief at the Fire College explained to those gathered the significance of the bells. In the 1800s, fire stations were notified of calls by way of a telegraph call box. When the box handle was pulled, it would tap out the number of the box in the fire station. The response would be to that box. In FDNY, the most dreaded code to hear from a fire scene was 5-5-5-5 because it meant a firefighter had died on that scene.

9:59 A.M. was the time of the collapse of the south WTC tower. 5-5-5-5 was rung out for box 8087 that served the World Trade Center. We shall never forget the 343 firefighters or the 2,252 other citizens that lost their lives that day. 2,596 lives were more than the loss of life during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The duty of ringing the bell went to Walt Malo, Safety Program Manager at the Fire College. Walt said, “It was an honor to be able to remember those that sacrificed so much on that September morning”.


MISTY JOINS THE STATE FIRE MARSHAL TEAM

After the retirement of K-9 Xena by Lt. Eric Saccasyn, the bureau selected Detective Mike Douglas to receive training and a replacement canine. Detective Douglas and his new partner "Misty" were certified by the Maine State Police as an accelerant detection canine team. State Farm funded the training and expenses.

On September 13th, their 4th day in service, Douglas and Misty were investigated a vehicle fire at 114 Marjorie St in Auburndale. The team determined the fire to be incendiary and made their first arrests as a team.

Congratulations to Mike and Misty on their first successful criminal investigation and apprehension. Misty has some big shoes to fill with Xena monitoring from retirement but this first assignment is a good indication that she is well on her way to success.


CFO SINK ANNOUNCES ARRESTS IN $8 MILLION ESCROW THEFT

NEW PORT RICHEY—Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink announced today the arrests of a husband and wife on multiple counts of theft of escrow funds and money laundering for allegedly stealing nearly $8 million from their title company escrow accounts.

The charges against John T. Wehlau, 43, and Cheryl T. Wehlau, 41, owners and operators of Gulf Coast Title Closings & Escrow Services in New Port Richey, are the result of an investigation by the Department of Financial Services’ Division of Insurance Fraud (DIF), a statewide law enforcement agency that investigates insurance fraud. The primary victim, Commonwealth Land Title Insurance Company, covered hundreds of homebuyers’ missing funds.

“Fraud hurts all Floridians and our economy by artificially driving up costs that are passed on to all consumers,” said CFO Sink, who oversees the department. “We will protect our citizens by rooting out these costly crimes and holding those involved accountable.”

The Wehlaus are charged with 21 counts of theft of escrow funds, three counts of money laundering and one count of grand theft. The couple was arrested Thursday at their New Port Richey home and booked into the Pasco County Jail. Bond was set for each at $5 million, $200,000 for each charge filed against them. If convicted on all of the charges, they could face a sentence of up to 30 years in prison on each count.

Detective Steven Firestone, DIF’s lead investigator in the case, said the investigation revealed that the alleged thefts of escrow funds began around January 2004 and consisted of 21 documented defalcation transactions of over $100,000, and that the defalcations, or thefts, were documented to have increased in amounts through October 2006. These alleged thefts ceased only when an audit revealed a drastic shortfall in Gulf Coast’s escrow accounts and Commonwealth Land Title Insurance Company stopped Gulf Coast’s business in early January 2006.

The Civil Court of the 6th Judicial Circuit, Civil Division, ordered a receiver appointed on January 19, 2006, to take over the company and wind down Gulf Coast Title Closings & Escrow Services, Inc. At the time of the audit, the escrow accounts held more than $9.4 million in escrow monies. The receiver found only $1.5 million in Gulf Coast’s accounts, including their escrow accounts and operating accounts, and found more than $7.9 million missing.

The investigation indicated that the Wehlaus allegedly used the money to fund a lavish lifestyle, including the purchase of a $1.3 million dollar home using $390,000 in misappropriated funds from the Gulf Coast escrow account as a down payment, and a $271,000 condominium for their daughter paid in cash. Other purchases included vehicles, trips, a single monthly American Express bill of more than $72,000, a single $3,200 Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse dinner bill and other personal expenses that allegedly were documented as funded via stolen escrow monies.

These charges will be prosecuted in Pinellas County by Attorney General Bill McCollum’s Office of Statewide Prosecution. The department anticipates filing action against the Wehlaus’ title agency license in the next few days.

The Department of Financial Services, Division of Insurance Fraud, investigates fraud in all types of insurance, including health, life, auto, property and workers’ compensation. To report information about this case or any other possible insurance fraud case, 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.


SENATOR GELLER DELIVERS $5,000 CHECK FROM THE MY SAFE FLORIDA HOME PROGRAM TO FT. LAUDERDALE RESIDENT TUESDAY
Sink urging more Broward County residents to sign up at www.MySafeFloridaHome.com

On behalf of Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and the My Safe Florida Home (MSFH) program, Senator Steve Geller (D-Hallandale Beach) personally delivered a matching grant reimbursement for $5,000 to a Ft. Lauderdale homeowner who hardened his home through the state’s MSFH program.

“Mitigation is the best way to protect your home, it will reduce the state’s exposure to hurricane damage and it can result in savings on your wind insurance premium,” said CFO Sink, who oversees the Department of Financial Services. “I encourage more Floridians to follow Mr. Lyden’s lead and sign up for free wind inspections through the My Safe Florida Home program.”

Daniel Lyden, a 45-year-old system engineer from Ft. Lauderdale, received a grant reimbursement Tuesday after hardening his home’s opening protections. After having his home inspected by a MSFH inspector, Lyden received a report indicating that the addition of impact-resistant windows and doors would help harden his home to hurricanes. With the program’s matching grant reimbursement of up to $5,000, Lyden was able to harden his windows and doors for a total cost of about $25,000.

“Hurricane insurance rates in Florida remain unacceptably high,” said Sen. Geller. “The total exposure to hurricane damage in this state remains too high. The best way to reduce the statewide problem and reduce your individual rates is this type of mitigation to reduce or prevent future damages.”

The MSFH program resumed offering wind inspections and expanded statewide this year after conducting a pilot program during the previous year. Since April 2007, the MSFH program has performed over 86,000 free wind inspections. More than 9,512 homeowners have been approved for matching grants and are working with the MSFH program to harden their homes. Statewide, the program has issued a grand total of more than 1,010 grants to homeowners for more than $3.1 million.

To date, the program has reimbursed 183 homeowners in Broward County for a total of $614,549.36. Currently there are 2,834 homeowners in Broward County hardening their homes through the MSFH program. These homeowners are being reimbursed for half the cost up to $5,000 on a variety of home improvements, including hurricane shutters, reinforced garage doors and bracing gable ends.

MSFH also partners with the Volunteer Florida Foundation (VFF) to provide mitigation, at no cost, to the homes of lower-income Floridians (those earning 80 percent or less than the Area Median Income.) To date, VFF has completed work on 623 homes in Florida, 53 of those homes are located in Broward County.

Any Floridian who lives in a single-family, site-built home is eligible for a free wind inspection through the program. Floridians can apply on-line at www.MySafeFloridaHome.com or by calling the program toll-free at 1-866-513-6734. Homeowners who receive free wind inspections through the MSFH program will receive a detailed inspection report, complete with additional eligibility information on matching grants and estimated insurance premium discounts, if the homeowner is eligible.

In order to be eligible for the program’s matching grant reimbursements of up to $5,000, the Legislature requires that homeowners meet the following requirements: have received a completed wind inspection after May 1, 2007; live in a single-family, site-built home built before March 1, 2002; have a valid homestead exemption; have an insured value of $300,000 or less; and be located in the wind-borne debris region.

Additionally, while the free wind inspections will still cover seven potential wind-resistance improvements, matching grants may only be applied to opening protections, including windows, exterior doors and garage doors, as well as the bracing of gable ends.
 


REP. TAYLOR DELIVERS $5,000 CHECK FROM THE MY SAFE FLORIDA HOME PROGRAM TO RIVIERA BEACH HOMEOWNERS WEDNESDAY

CFO Sink urging more Palm Beach County residents to sign up at www.MySafeFloridaHome.com

On behalf of Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and the My Safe Florida Home (MSFH) program, Representative Priscilla Taylor (D-Riviera Beach) personally delivered a matching grant reimbursement for $5,000 to a Riviera Beach couple who hardened their home through the state’s MSFH program. 

“Mitigation is the best way to protect your home, it will reduce the state’s exposure to hurricane damage and it can result in savings on your wind insurance premium,” said CFO Sink, who oversees the Department of Financial Services.  “I encourage more Floridians to follow Mr. and Mrs. Sayles’ lead to sign up for free wind inspections through the My Safe Florida Home program.” 

John (52) and Donna (47) Sayles, of Riviera Beach, received a grant reimbursement Wednesday after hardening their home’s opening protections.  After having their home inspected by a MSFH inspector, the Sayles received a report indicating that the addition of accordion shutters to their windows, replacing the garage door with a Miami-Dade-rated garage door, and hardening their front and rear door would help harden their home to hurricanes.  With the program’s matching grant reimbursement of up to $5,000, the Sayles were able to afford hardening their home for a total cost of about $14,000.

“I feel that the My Safe Florida Home program is a great benefit to the people here in Palm Beach County, but it is not being utilized enough,” said Rep. Taylor. “We need to get the word out so that more people can take advantage of the program.”

The MSFH program resumed offering wind inspections and expanded statewide this year after conducting a pilot program during the previous year in 2006.  Since April 2007, the MSFH program has performed over 90,000 free wind inspections.  More than 9,512 homeowners have been approved for matching grants and are working with the MSFH program to harden their homes.  Statewide, the program has issued a grand total of 1,010 grants to homeowners for more than $3.1 million.

To date, the program has reimbursed 166 homeowners in Palm Beach County for a total of $481,814.  Currently there are, 2,011 homeowners in Palm Beach County hardening their homes through the MSFH program.  These homeowners are being reimbursed for half the cost up to $5,000 on a variety of home improvements, including hurricane shutters, reinforced garage doors and bracing gable ends.

MSFH also partners with the Volunteer Florida Foundation (VFF) to provide mitigation, at no cost, to the homes of lower-income Floridians (those earning 80 percent or less than the Area Median Income.)  To date, VFF has completed work on 623 homes in Florida, 50 of those homes are located in Palm Beach County.

Any Floridian who lives in a single-family, site-built home is eligible for a free wind inspection through the program.  Floridians can apply on-line at www.MySafeFloridaHome.com or by calling the program toll-free at 1-866-513-6734.  Homeowners who receive free wind inspections through the MSFH program will receive a detailed inspection report, complete with additional eligibility information on matching grants and estimated insurance premium discounts, if the homeowner is eligible. 

In order to be eligible for the program’s matching grant reimbursements of up to $5,000, the Legislature requires that homeowners meet the following requirements: have received a completed wind inspection after May 1, 2007; live in a single-family, site-built home built before March 1, 2002; have a valid homestead exemption; have an insured value of $300,000 or less; and be located in the wind-borne debris region.

Additionally, while the free wind inspections will still cover seven potential wind-resistance improvements, matching grants may only be applied to opening protections, including windows, exterior doors and garage doors, as well as the bracing of gable ends. 



Consumer Services Helpline (800) 342-2762
Consumer eViews  MyFloridaCFO.com/PressOffice/Newsletter/