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CITIZENS' ADDRESS HIJACKED

The insurer says someone redirected its mail, possibly including customers' checks.

Someone filled out a change-of-address form for Citizens Property Insurance. But it wasn't Citizens.

Now the state-run insurer is warning policyholders that mail sent to its headquarters in late June, including payment checks, may have been fraudulently misdirected to a Hialeah apartment.

The insurer of last resort, which has more than 1 million policyholders, said U.S. Postal Service investigators and other agencies are working to figure out the scope of the fraud.

Citizens asks any policyholder who sent a payment between June 14 and June 28 to contact its hotline, toll-free 1-888-685-1555. It also pledges to work with customers whose checks may have been fraudulently cashed.

It could have been worse.

Citizens spokeswoman Christine Turner Ashburn said someone apparently tried to change the mailing addresses for both the company's corporate headquarters in Jacksonville, where new applications are typically sent, and a post office box, where renewal payments are typically directed. The P.O. box application wasn't processed. But by the time Citizens received a "change of address" confirmation postcard about its headquarters early last week, its mail had already been redirected for more than a week.

"There are no controls that (the Postal Service) has in place, as far as we can tell, to stop this on the front end," Ashburn said. "We found out the hard way. That's normal process."

A U.S. Postal Service spokesman in Tampa was unavailable for comment Monday.

Bill Newton, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network, said the change-of-address scam is just one more example of how sending a check in the mail is hardly foolproof.

"You used to think making payments online was less secure. Now (sending checks in the mail) is seeming to be the less secure option," he said. "I understand why people want to write checks, but it can lead to problems."

Ashburn said the company does not believe a large number of people were affected, but wanted "to err on the side of caution."

Citizens posted a warning about the problem on its website (citizensfla.com) and began airing $25,000 worth of public service announcements over the weekend, but did not send out a public news release about the fraud.

The company will start contacting anyone with a pending application for homeowners insurance starting today. It's concerned about potential identity fraud in addition to the stolen checks.

"We're going to send out direct letters to anyone who could have been sending us something," Ashburn said. "If one person's identity gets taken because of this, we haven't gone far enough."

Citizen's lawyers are considering legal action for reimbursement from the Postal Service, but Ashburn was doubtful of any money coming from the federal government.

"The irony of this is we're going to do a direct mail campaign, so we're going to pay the Postal Service a lot of money," she said. "It's almost comical."

Jeff Harrington can be reached at jharrington@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8242.

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Q & A

What to do if you think you're affected

- I sent Citizens Property Insurance a check in late June. What should I do?

Call the toll-free hot line set up by Citizens, 1-888-685-1555. If you're waiting for confirmation a check has been cashed, Citizens can confirm if it has been received and if not, "discuss options." If a stop-payment on a check is necessary, Citizens promises to reimburse your bank's stop-payment fee "upon receipt of the appropriate documentation."

- What if my check was cashed by someone other than Citizens?

Get a copy of the front and back of the canceled check and call the Citizens' hot line.

- What if I'm concerned about identity fraud?

Citizens suggests you contact your financial institutions, credit card issuers and credit bureaus. You also should obtain a current copy of your credit report and review it for suspicious activity.

- Where can I learn more?

Visit citizensfla.com.

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