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  1. Opinion

Car windshield scams raise insurance rates in Tampa Bay | Column

State lawmakers should protect auto insurance policyholders, writes an investigator.
Rain drops splatter on a car windshield as rain comes down by the downtown Clearwater city marina. [JIM DAMASKE]

The National Insurance Crime Bureau’s (NICB) mission is to combat insurance fraud. Unfortunately, as an investigator with the organization, I see a surge in auto glass fraud cases here in my hometown.

Last year, anti-fraud advocates focused efforts on “assignment of benefits” (AOB) fraud involving property insurance. Key to that effort were homeowners such as Charles and Wendy Snellgrove from Clearwater, who were featured in the Tampa Bay Times. Wendy and Charles signed what they thought was a contract to have their kitchen sink repaired for a minor leak when, in fact, they signed over their insurance rights to a third-party repair vendor, entering them into a year-long legal battle.

As we embark on another legislative session, we can only hope state lawmakers can do the same to protect auto insurance policyholders.

Tampa continues to be one of the worst areas in the state when it comes to fraudsters looking to take advantage of auto policyholders by convincing them they need a windshield replaced. Some glass repair companies bill for services and never actually replace the windshield, or even replace windshields that do not have damage. Victims have told me that some companies are using scare tactics by saying things like the molding is defective or deteriorating, which could cause a safety problem. These companies often advise victims that there is a state law allowing policyholders to get a “free windshield” if they have any damage.

Joy Shanafelt [Provided by Joy Shanafelt]

Some companies approach people at car washes and grocery store parking lots. They will even go to door-to-door, offering free steak dinners, gift cards and referral fees if you sign up for the windshield replacement.

The AOB form means you are giving the auto glass company the right to file an insurance claim, make repairs, collect insurance payments and control any litigation in your name surrounding your claim. The problem is these companies are turning this into a lucrative business by inflating your insurance claim, often two to three times the local going rate, and collecting the money for themselves. This type of AOB abuse is a scam and must be stopped.

A recent Florida Justice Reform Institute (FJRI) report based on data obtained from the Florida Department of Financial Services found that in 2006 approximately 397 auto glass AOB lawsuits were filed against auto insurers. That number rose to approximately 24,000 in 2017 — an increase of 5,945 percent. The number of auto glass lawsuits filed here in Hillsborough and in Orange counties is higher than anywhere else in the state.

This is a very organized scheme, and according to the FJRI report, 60 percent of all lawsuits filed on behalf of glass shops come from just four law firms, and about a dozen law firms file nearly 100 percent of the lawsuits. These lawsuits are driving up costs for consumers, as we all pay for this abuse in the form of higher insurance costs.

Joy Shanafelt is a special agent with the National Insurance Crime Bureau in Tampa.

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