AP News

Fla. consumer advocate wants state investigation


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida's insurance consumer advocate is seeking a state investigation of, and potentially action against, companies that cancel homeowner policies and deny claims based on credit information.

Robin Smith Westcott called it "an abusive practice" and "a troubling new trend" in a letter to Florida Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty.

"This activity threatens not only homeowners' financial stability but also the state's economic recovery," Westcott wrote.

A spokeswoman for McCarty declined comment Wednesday.

Sam Miller, spokesman for the Florida Insurance Council, an industry group, said Westcott's letter was the first he'd heard about the practice so it apparently isn't widespread.

Westcott didn't immediately return a call seeking further information, but her letter dated Tuesday cites only three cases involving a single company. She wrote that it should be considered an unfair trade practice to obtain a credit report after a customer files a claim and then cite previous instances of financial difficulty such as bankruptcy, foreclosure and liens to cancel a policy even though the consumer may have paid premiums for years.

"With Florida leading the nation in bankruptcies and foreclosures, many homeowners are finding themselves in these types of financial situations," Westcott wrote. She urged McCarty to work with insurers to adopt standards "that recognize Florida's unique circumstances with regard to the foreclosure crisis."

Westcott also wrote that homeowners often are then unable to obtain or afford other coverage because their policies have been canceled on grounds they misrepresented their credit backgrounds.

They could be driven to the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp., which is trying to spin off policies to private companies to reduce its risk, Westcott wrote.

However, not even Citizens, created as Florida's insurer of last resort but now the state's biggest property insurance company, will write coverage for a customer who has had a policy canceled for misrepresentation, she noted.

Those who are required to have coverage under the terms of their mortgages then must resort to high-priced lender-placed policies. If they cannot afford such coverage, they may lose their homes, Westcott wrote.

The letter cites three complaints handled by Westcott's office, all involving Universal Property and Casualty Insurance Co. based in Fort Lauderdale. In each case, policies were canceled due to financial issues such as bankruptcy that occurred up to four years before the customers applied for coverage.

Westcott said the company should have checked their credit reports immediately after writing the policies instead of waiting until they filed claims months or years later. State law permits an insurer to cancel coverage for material misrepresentation after 90 days.

Many consumer advocates also question the legitimacy of using credit reports at any time as a reliable risk predictor, Westcott noted. She also pointed out the Florida Legislature has "strictly regulated the use of credit reports and credit scores for underwriting purposes."

In one case involving a condominium unit policy, Universal reinstated the coverage and paid the claim after Westcott's office pointed out the insurer's guidelines for past financial problems apply only to policies for single-family homes. In a similar case, though, Universal has stuck with its decision to void the policy, Westcott wrote.

A Universal spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a telephone message seeking comment Wednesday.


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