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Advocate studies insurers' practices

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's insurance consumer advocate is seeking a state investigation of — and potentially action against — companies that wait until after claims are filed to cancel homeowners policies and deny the claims based on credit information.

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

"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. Westcott said she heard about it from insurance agents and then from lawyers who handle insurance cases.

Her letter cites three cases, all involving Universal Property and Casualty Insurance Co., but Westcott said her office has received about 10 complaints. She was unsure how widespread the practice is, but said it could be extensive because Universal is one of the state's largest insurers and has acknowledged it uses the procedure as a matter of routine.

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."

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

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, 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 involving Fort Lauderdale-based Universal that Westcott's office received. 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.

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."

Westcott said one policy was canceled due to a $400 small-claims court judgment. She doesn't believe the consumers intentionally misrepresented their financial background, noting insurance agents filled out their applications in some cases.

Advocate studies insurers' practices 11/01/12 [Last modified: Thursday, November 1, 2012 12:02am]

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