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  1. Opinion

Ruth: Takeout, depopulate, repeat

You could be forgiven if you confused Citizens Property Insurance Corp. with one of David Copperfield's legendary acts of illusion. One moment you're a customer. The next moment you're not. And you never even realized you disappeared.

Being a Citizens customer is not for the faint of heart, or those with a pinch of paranoia or low self-esteem. Being a Citizens policyholder sets up poor, unsuspecting souls for a life of rejection, abandonment and denouncement for fear of getting yet another of the company's letters informing them once again they've been passed around like a broken-down plow horse.

Citizens is at it again. But it's always at it again.

In an effort to "depopulate" its customer base, Citizens periodically sends out "takeout" letters to hundreds of thousands of customers informing them their policy has been transferred to another property insurance carrier, as if its clientele has nothing better to do that sit by the door waiting for the letter carrier to arrive. "Depopulate." "Takeout." Sounds like the actuarial equivalent of The Departed. And in a way, it is.

Some victims of Citizens have complained the go-away missives are often addressed as innocuously as possible in the hope, perhaps, that the homeowner will merely view the envelope as junk mail and toss it in the trash unopened.

That's good news for Citizens, since the way the depopulation scam works is the homeowner must proactively send back a form rejecting the offer. Otherwise customers are automatically foisted off on some fly-by-night operation like Skippy's Taco Bus and Property Insurance.

Citizens is also not above some bureaucratic shucking and jiving, reminding customers who are ungrateful about being dragooned into the Hair Club for Men and Property Insurance that future Citizens customers could be subjected to a 45 percent premium surcharge in the aftermath of a major hurricane. But considering Citizens has built up a $7.6 billion surplus, the 45 percent intimidation effort is at best phooey.

According to Tampa Bay Times reporter Jeff Harrington, there are 930,000 Citizens policyholders, a figure down from 1.5 million customers in 2012. Of course there is a very simple way that Citizens could easily eliminate all its policyholders — they would be happy to move to another carrier if only the alternative was a genuine, well-capitalized reputable provider of property insurance protection. Too much to ask? Apparently so.

Instead, as Harrington pointed out, of the 47 private property insurers based in Florida, none of them has received a score high enough to be recommended to do business with by Weiss Ratings, which evaluates insurance carriers. Not. One.

Of the takeout companies Citizens has tried to schlepp its customers into, Olympus received a D-plus (that's comforting), Homeowners Choice was given a D (obviously they didn't pull an all-nighter), Heritage and Avatar got C's, Fidelity had a barn-burning C-plus, and Elements was too new to the business to even earn a rating. An idle thought: If you are going into the property insurance racket as a rock-solid enterprise, is it really a good idea to call yourself Avatar?

Despite the dreary Weiss ratings, Florida Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty insisted the takeout companies met rigid state standards to conduct business. By what measure? Did they all have a perfectly functioning neon sign blinking "Big Bubba's Catfish and Property Insurance" in the window?

Only one company earned an A-plus based on its robust capital reserves and its ability to contend with exposure to a statewide insurance crisis: Citizens, which doesn't even want to be in the insurance business.

You don't need to be a Wharton School business graduate to figure out it makes zero sense to agree to be dumped off onto a D-rated (or worse) Boris' Borscht Emporium and Property Insurance — Serving Florida's Property Insurance Needs Since 7:15 This Morning, if you are already covered by a financially stable albeit reluctant carrier.

Enough already. If Citizens wants to depopulate its policyholders, consumers should be offered a clearly worded chance to go with another company without the onus of having to decline the alternative. Notifications from Citizens should be clearly labeled with language on the front of the envelope along of the lines of: "ATTENTION LUCKY HOMEOWNER — You are about be (insert your own word) by Citizens Property Insurance, which would like you to become a customer of Zippy's Inflatable Playground Balloons and Property Insurance.

"Trust us — it is a steal of a deal."