Find out where latest skimmers were detected in Palm Beach County

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services said it found two gasoline pump skimmers within the last week in Palm Beach County. They were both discovered in West Palm Beach at:

  • 7-Eleven Inc., 3035 N Military Trail, West Palm Beach
  • Texaco/Sunshine #37, 2274 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach

The skimmers were found as part of a statewide sweep of gasoline stations in popular spring break destinations. In our area, inspectors probed pumps at 51 service stations, finding the two skimmers in that search.

Getting gas at the Shell station at 5980 Okeechobee Blvd in West Palm Beach, Florida, April 13, 2016. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)
Getting gas at the Shell station at 5980 Okeechobee Blvd in West Palm Beach, Florida, April 13, 2016. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Across Florida, state officials said they inspected 500 gasoline stations in the targeted markets, yielding a total of eight skimmers.

The state estimates that for each skimmer undetected, as many as 100 consumers can have their credit card information stolen — leading to an average of $1,000 worth of fraudulent transactions.

“From Okaloosa County to Miami-Dade County, these skimmers are being placed on gas pumps and stealing from unsuspecting residents and visitors,” said Commissioner of Agriculture Adam H. Putnam. “We will continue to crackdown on these devices – and the criminals responsible for them.”

Since early 2015, the department said it has detected more than 430 skimmers across the Sunshine State. The areas inspected in this sweep, the number of facilities inspected and numbers of skimmers found are as follows:

  • Panama City Beach/ Panhandle –77 facilities, 0 skimmers found
  • Orlando area – 128 facilities, 0 skimmers found
  • Clearwater / St. Pete Beach – 66 facilities, 4 skimmers found
  • One Stop, Giant BP #109, 6151 4th St N, St. Petersburg
  • One Food of Pinellas Inc. #23, 901 4th St N, St. Petersburg
  • Quick Mart of Largo, 1990 West BAY Dr., Largo (2 skimmers)
  • Ft. Myers Beach – 36 facilities, 0 skimmers found
  • Daytona Beach/ Cocoa Beach/ Flagler Beach/ New Smyrna Beach – 75 facilities, 1 skimmer found
  • Sunoco Food Mart, 5625 N Atlantic Ave., Cocoa Beach
  • West Palm Beach – 51 facilities, 2 skimmers found
  • Mobil/7-Eleven Inc., 3035 N Military Trail, West Palm Beach
  • Texaco/Sunshine #37, 2274 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach
  • Ft. Lauderdale – 25 facilities, 1 skimmer found
  • Valero, 1 N Federal Hwy, Pompano Beach
  • Miami – 21 facilities, 0 skimmers found

 

State officials issued these steps they say consumers should follow to protect themselves:

  • Pay in cash inside the store to ensure the credit card information stays safe.
  • Check to make sure the gas pump dispenser cabinet is closed and has not been tampered with. Many stations are now putting a piece of security tape over the cabinet to ensure it has not been opened by unauthorized individuals.
  • Use a gas pump closer to the front of the store. Thieves often place skimmers at the gas pumps farther away from the store so they are not noticed as quickly.
  • Use a credit card instead of a debit card. Credit cards have better fraud protection, and the money is not deducted immediately from an account.
  • If using a debit card at the pump, choose to run it as a credit card instead of a debit card. That way, the PIN number is safe.
  • Monitor bank accounts regularly to spot any unauthorized charges.
  • Consumers who suspect their credit card number has been compromised should report it immediately to authorities and their credit card company.

 

For more information about the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, visit FreshFromFlorida.com.

Citizens board members AWOL, can’t be found, meeting postponed

Update March 15: The manhunt is over. Eight board members met by phone to approve the reinsurance matter and a janitorial contract by an 8-0 vote in a meeting lasting less than 10 minutes.

Original post: Board members of state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. including one from Palm Beach County could not be located for a teleconference Friday, forcing postponement of a scheduled meeting to approve a financial transaction.

“I want to express my apologies to all on the call,” board chairman Chris Gardner said more than 20 minutes into a scheduled 1 p.m. meeting. “This didn’t work and I’m sure there’s a good reason.”

There was no date set for a rescheduled meeting, though apparently it was not for later in the day Friday. Gardner closed by saying, “Have a good weekend.”

Citizens board member Juan Cocuy of Palm Beach County.
Citizens board member Juan Cocuy of Palm Beach County.

The eight-member board did not have enough participating members to take action. Board member Juan Cocuy of Palm Beach County could not be located, though his staff was looking for him, officials said. A call to Cocuy’s voice mail at a Wellington office was not immediately returned.

The board’s consumer representative, Bette Brown of Monroe County, was announced as unavailable, for reasons not disclosed. Board member Jim Henderson of Seminole County may have had difficulty establishing or keeping telephone contact, officials said.

The meeting, publicly noticed for at least several days on the company’s website,  addressed a requested board action involving $300 million in Everglades Re II catastrophe bonds. Citizens policyholders pay for the bonds, which have less than a 1.5 percent chance of being needed in a given year but provide money to help pay claims in the event of rare and severe storms. The state’s insurance consumer advocate and others have questioned whether Citizens bought too much offshore reinsurance, some of it in multi-year contracts, needlessly costing its customers money even as the company’s risk exposure was dramatically falling along with its number of policies.

The board was being asked approve calling the bonds to give “full flexibility to optimize the structure of its 2017 risk transfer program without any existing risk transfer carryover and will be able to take full advantage of current market conditions,” according to documents posted for the meeting.

 

 

State Farm, which blacklisted Post, rings up record loss on cars

Insurance giant State Farm, which dumped hundreds of thousands of Florida home insurance customers and refuses to talk to The Palm Beach Post because of its reporting, lost more money last year insuring cars than ever in its 95-year history, Crain’s Chicago Business reported.

The $7 billion loss in its auto segment left the company with an overall $400 million profit in 2016, down from $6.2 billion in 2015, Crain reported.

moneyfistCould alienating loyal, stable customers in places like Florida have anything to do with the company’s fortunes right about now? Folks who quietly pay premiums and don’t file a bunch of claims can do an awful lot of good for the bottom line.

As the Post has reported, loyalty can matter a lot in insurance, as legions of people dropped for home insurance felt little reason to stick with the company for car coverage. James Savage of West Palm Beach, for example, said he was a State Farm customer for nearly four decades and never filed a storm-related claim, yet the company dropped him.

“Is it possible to hate State Farm?” Savage said. “You bet!”

A more welcoming, transparent attitude might help more people become aware when State Farm does offer relatively consumer-friendly coverage, such as not raising rates on widows or after accidents in which the driver is not at fault.

Another thing that tends to drive customers away: Jacking up rates, Allstate found out. It suffered the greatest percentage of auto insurance customer defections in at least 15 years after two years of substantial rate jumps, Crain reported.

Allstate Fire and Casualty Insurance Co. increased Florida premiums 30.7 percent since the start of 2015, the Post reported last year.

 

 

 

 

 

‘I’d be dead’: Barber invited to Trump address has talked before

A Treasure Coast woman barber invited to President Trump’s Tuesday address to Congress has talked to The Palm Beach Post before.

Sherry Riggs, 55, said in January 2016 she had a heart condition and no health plan with her barber’s job, so she thinks she knows where she would be without the Affordable Care Act. She was one of more than 180,000 Palm Beach County and Treasure Coast residents signing up for Obamacare marketplace plans that year.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump

“I’d be dead,” Riggs said at a sign-up event attended by federal officials in West Palm Beach.

U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, has invited Riggs as a guest for Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday.

Trump said Monday Republicans are working out a “very good” plan to replace Obamacare, but it’s no simple task.

“It’s an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated,” he told governors at the White House Monday.

One writer called that “a phrase to etch onto the repeal tombstone.”

 

 

Crisis? Maybe, but top FL insurer says severity of AOB claims falling

Florida’s largest property insurer says its average cost is going down, not up, for claims associated with what many in the industry call a crisis requiring immediate legislative action, its CEO told analysts Wednesday.

That means assignment of benefits, such as when a consumer signs over control of insurance payments to a contractor or other third party.

universal“We saw a little bit uptick in frequency, nothing major,”  Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Co. CEO Sean Downes told analysts on a fourth-quarter earnings call Wednesday. “But the severity is down.”

Fort Lauderdale-based Universal has more than 572,000 policies statewide, almost 100,000 more than No. 2 state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp., according to the lastest numbers in a state database. By number of policies, it is the leading insurer in Palm Beach and Broward counties.

Example of an AOB claim:  A pipe breaks in the middle of the night. The homeowner calls somebody to clean things up and fix damage. That somebody may tell the consumer I’ll do the work and even deal with the insurance company for you if you sign these papers.

It happens in health care all the time, but property insurers say abuses in this process are causing higher rates in South Florida now and for years to come and require aggressive legislation to rein it in. Attorneys get involved and the costs can multiply, they say.

In opposition, contractors and attorneys say some proposals are fine — such as notify the insurance company reasonably quickly — but others go too far to block consumer rights to representation.

“This is an attempt to keep high profits and raise premiums,” said Nicole Vinson, a Tampa attorney who sues insurers. “The carriers could easily remedy any improper suits by winning the court battles.  So far we have yet to hear of their victories.”

Downes made it abundantly clear he was not saying he sees no problem with AOB or no need for legislative action. Last year Universal  proposed a blanket rate increase of 8.1 percent for homeowners across South Florida including Palm Beach County, and cited AOB among the reasons.

Universal consultant Kenneth L. Leonard Jr. said “increasing trends in the Tri-County region” create “additional uncertainty” that is “not captured through techniques traditionally followed to develop individual territory indications.”

But regulators questioned the vague, blanket justification and Universal withdrew the request, leaving rates unchanged.

For the coming year, Downes said Wednesday a rate increase is likely but he did not specify how much.

“We are currently in the process right now of creating, gathering the data to create our rate indication,” he said. “We don’t have that information yet. Obviously, you’ve seen some of our competitors have filed for some rate increases. I think it would be a representative issue and AOB issue. I think it’s prevalent as it is, I think it’s safe to say that we probably would be looking at some sort of rate increase, but it is little too early yet right now to make that decision based upon us being in the early stages of creating that rate indication.”

But  at the same time, he let analysts know the company is taking its own action to respond to claims quickly, and seeing the average cost per AOB claim go down for standard homeowner policies known as HO-3.

Frequency refers to how many or how often such claims occur. Severity means how much they cost.

Here’s an analyst’s question and his answer from a transcript:

Q: You talked about this earlier with the reserves, but I guess how did you experience AOB change in 4Q ’16, and I guess even year-to-date 2017 versus the prior year and prior quarters? Would you say, it’s looking stable? Do you think it’s getting worse or you’re potentially seeing some signs of light?

Sean Downes: We saw a little bit uptick in frequency nothing major. But the severity is down, just give you couple of numbers. In 2014, on average HO-3 with AOB connected to it, we had a severity about 21,000. In ’15, it was around 19,400. In ’16 right now, as of this date, it’s not fully cooked, it’s running around 17,590. So, I think once that’s fully cooked, I am sure you are going to be right around that 19,000 number. So, from a severity perspective, I believe that it’s relatively flat. From a peer represented issue, we are seeing a much more aggressive law firms out there right now and taking shots at claims.

So, we have been working on that specifically and trying to battle that situation, I think that’s something that obviously is affecting the industry as a whole, and we’re not immune to that. But I think our ability to get out of these claims quicker with a fast-track team in the day of the claim and the next day is mitigating the potential for plaintiffs law firms, public adjusters, contractors et cetera to intervene to create that separation from us to our insured. So, I think it’s an issue that I think we’re battling as good as we can.

 

Private flood insurance bill rolls, with dissent on unregulated prices

A bill designed to boost Florida’s private alternatives to federal flood insurance cleared an early stop Tuesday, though not without a bit of protest and unease about moves that whisk away price regulation.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes
State Sen. Jeff Brandes

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, told the Senate banking and insurance committee the idea was to encourage “alternatives to costly federal insurance.” It passed 8-1.

SB 420  lets private companies set flood rates until 2025 without the normal process of state approval and opens the door more widely to “surplus lines” companies whose rates are not regulated by the state and whose claims are not covered by a state fund if they fail.

“I commend what you’re trying to do,” said Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale. “But I just can’t support growing the surplus lines industry any more.”

It represents “unregulated insurance,” Farmer said.

Florida has the most flood policies in the nation, most of which come from the federally-run National Flood Insurance Program.

But private agents and companies are not totally uninvolved. They can act as middlemen who administer NFIP policies under a “write your own” program, and a government watchdog report says the program still does a terrible job of justifying the hefty fees private partners can take.

Private agents and insurance companies have pocketed about one in three government flood premium dollars to sign up people and administer policies — while assuming no risk, The Palm Beach Post has reported. Congress’s Government Accountability Office has questioned about $10 billion in such fees since the 1980s.

“The Federal Emergency Management Agency has yet to revise its compensation practices for Write-Your-Own companies to reflect actual expenses as required by the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012,” a GAO report released in December said.

 

 

 

Sen. Nelson: Demotech downgrades risk mass FL homeowner ‘disaster’

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson urged federal officials Tuesday to take any actions necessary to prevent a “disaster ” if mass numbers of Florida homeowners go into default because ratings firm Demotech Inc. lowers safety grades on several property insurers.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

The threatened lower grades from the Ohio-based ratings company could “put thousands of Florida homeowners at risk of defaulting on their home loans,” Florida’s Democratic senator wrote to Steve Seitz, deputy director of the Office of Federal Insurance for the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

“Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac require borrowers to buy insurance from companies with at least an A rating,” Nelson wrote. “If those companies are downgraded to a B rating, thousands of Florida homeowners who currently have insurance policies with those companies could suddenly find themselves in default on their home loans.”

Nelson continued, “Regardless of the reason, the effects of such a downgrade could be devastating. I urge you to look into the situation and take any and all necessary steps to help stabilize Florida’s property insurance market and avoid such a disaster.”

A Treasury spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Demotech officials have said guidance on 57 Florida property insurers is under review after  2016 storms and continuing water-claims problems, and an unspecified number face ratings downgrades in March.

Here is the text of Nelson’s letter:

February 21, 2017

 

Mr. Steve Seitz

Deputy Director, Office of Federal Insurance

United States Department of the Treasury

1500 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Room 3312

Washington, DC 20220

 

Dear Deputy Director Seitz,

 

I am concerned about recent developments related to Florida’s property insurance market. According to news reports, Demotech, Inc., an Ohio-based insurance-rating company, is threatening to downgrade the financial stability ratings of several property insurance companies in Florida from A to B. Such a move could put thousands of Florida homeowners at risk of defaulting on their home loans.

 

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac require borrowers to buy insurance from companies with at least an A rating. If those companies are downgraded to a B rating, thousands of Florida homeowners who currently have insurance policies with those companies could suddenly find themselves in default on their home loans.

 

Demotech, Inc. cites several reasons for a potential downgrade, including an increase in water-damage claims and abuse of a practice known as assignment of benefits. Regardless of the reason, the effects of such a downgrade could be devastating. If thousands of Florida homeowners are thrown into default through no fault of their own, it could have a disastrous effect on the state’s economy and financial system.

 

I urge you to look into the situation and take any and all necessary steps to help stabilize Florida’s property insurance market and avoid such a disaster. Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.

 

Sincerely,

Bill Nelson

Update: Asked for comment, Demotech president Joe Petrelli did not directly address Nelson’s letter but offered these comments:

In 1996, when the State of Florida, we were invited by the Department of Insurance, now Office of Insurance Regulation, and the secondary mortgage marketplace to do so.  The Commissioner was Tom Gallagher.  The State needed to address the issue of insurer acceptability in Florida.  They contacted Demotech.  In 1989, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae had become familiar with us and accepted our Financial Stability Ratings® (FSRs) of A or better.  We developed a procedure.  Our procedure met the needs of the State of Florida, insurance agents, insurance companies, consumers and was acceptable to the secondary mortgage marketplace.

 

Since that date, Demotech has reviewed and rated insurers countrywide.  We have publicly noted how the AOB matter has been problematic to a financial review of insurers in that past history on claims is no longer indicative of future claims activity due to the AOB phenomenon.  The Johnson and Sebo decisions caused further concern about the capability of past loss experience to be indicative of future loss experience.  Given that we have been actively reviewing and rating carriers in Flor8ida since 1996, we have been transparent in our concerns about past being prologue to the future.

 

As carriers assigned an Financial Stability Rating (FSR) one notch below A, S, Substantial have performed well over time, I first approached Fannie and Freddie in April 2012 to accept our FSRs of S or better as opposed to FSRs of A or better.  The S rating is an excellent rating.  In the secondary mortgage marketplace it has been accepted for title underwriters since 1994.  It is accepted by numerous insurance agent’s errors and omissions insurers.  it has withstood the scrutiny of several due diligences.  Since approaching Fannie and Freddie in April 2012, I have had additional communication as recently as February 2, 2017.

 

Carriers assigned an FSR of A must meet or exceed our criteria.   This said, Demotech believes, and others agree, that our FSRs of S, at one notch below A, identify financially stable insurers that are well above average.  As to carriers in Florida, every carrier that we review and rate has been made aware of our opinion on their financial position at least quarterly and since the fall of 2016, on a regular basis.  We have advised carriers of what they need to do to sustain their FSR of A.  However, given the impact of AOB, the potential impact of Johnson (9/29/2016) and Sebo (12/1/2016) on the insurer operating environment in Florida, subsequent to the financial impact of a series of storms during 2016 including Hermione and Matthew, each of the 57 carriers we review may not meet the criteria for an FSR of A when we review their year-end 2016 published reports.

 

In summary, Our criteria associated with an FSR of A remain intact.   One notch below A, an FSR of S is assigned to a well above average company.  We have been communicating with the GSEs and insurance agents errors and omissions insurers since April 2012 on this matter.   We have many E&O carriers on board with the FSR of S.

Update:  “The Treasury Department does not comment on Congressional correspondence,” a spokeswoman said.

Wellington flower firm loses at US Supreme Ct. in key online tax case

A Wellington flower delivery company saw its hopes wilt Tuesday in a case with big implications for online sales when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up a constitutional challenge to a Florida tax on flowers delivered out of state.

The company’s lawyers warned the court “nothing will constrain the spread of this power to all e-commerce transactions.”

banner1vendegrandeeneroAmerican Business USA Corp., which operates as 1Vende.com, had no immediate reaction from company principal Mauricio Gomez.

“I need to talk to my partner and lawyers,” Gomez said.

The high court’s decision reported by the News Service of Florida in effect upholds a Florida Supreme Court ruling that favored the state’s Department of Revenue. The state 4th District Court of Appeal had earlier ruled the state tax represented an improper “burden” on interstate commerce.

American Business USA made the case that it should not be subject to Florida sales taxes, because it used out-of-state florists to fill online orders.

“The present case is important because the Florida Supreme Court’s newly announced power has no limiting principle,” company attorneys wrote in an October brief. “If a state may tax flower sales based only on the state’s connection to the internet retailer who accepts the order, then nothing will constrain the spread of this power to all e-commerce transactions. As a category, flowers are indistinguishable from other types of tangible personal property.”

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office argued differently in its own a court filing.

“As the Florida Supreme Court recognized, Florida’s unremarkable imposition of sales tax liability on a business incorporated in Florida, residing in Florida, headquartered in Florida, and conducting sales operations in Florida fits well within the scope of state taxing authority, regardless whether the goods in question originate in or are delivered out of state,” the state’s brief said.

 

 

Fast Fix 123: Ban PB Co. tech ‘scam’ execs for good, Fla. AG says

Florida’s Attorney General said Tuesday she wants a permanent order barring executives at a “scam” company operating in West Palm Beach and Boynton Beach from working in tech support again.

On the same day, federal officials warned another tech-support company previously shut down has tried to reach customers again to offer resumed service or phony refunds.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has activated the state's price gouging hotline.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi 

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi filed a complaint in Palm Beach County Circuit Court against Fast Fix 123 LLC and Paul Cozzolino, Tyler Foss and Dennis Rinker. Attempts to reach them were not successful. A company number has been disconnected.

“This scam was designed to trick consumers, some of them seniors, into believing their computers were severely compromised and scare them into buying unnecessary protection software,”  Bondi said in a statement. “With today’s action, we are seeking to shut down this tech support scam and acquire relief for the victims.”

The complaint seeks civil penalties and seeks defendants to be “permanently enjoined from advertising, marketing, promoting, providing, rendering, selling, soliciting, engaging in or accepting payment for any tech support services.”

It is the ninth action taken by Bondi’s office against tech support firms since late 2014, marking the most by any state, according to her office. Palm Beach County has been a hotbed for call centers used in the scheme, though many have closed their doors months or years ahead of enforcement actions like this one.

But the operators don’t always go away for good. Also on Tuesday, the Federal Trade Commission warned consumers are getting calls offering “refunds” or resuming service on behalf of a tech-support company previously shut down called Global Connect, accused of deceptive practices in a Missouri case.

“Don’t do it,” the FTC warned. “Never give someone who calls you control of your computer. Instead, hang up and report it to the FTC.”

In the Palm Beach County case, deceptive internet pop-up windows disguised as legitimate operating system or web browser security warnings appeared to be messages from well-known software companies, such as Microsoft, according to state officials.

The pop-ups said consumers’ computers were at risk and instructed them to get help by contacting a toll-free telephone number that connected consumers to sales agents at inbound call centers. Consumers were then pressured to buy high-priced virus protection software, officials said.

The complaint includes nuggets from the sales script, like this one playing on customer fears:

 

If the customer is still standoffish read this: What were you doing on your computer when you received the pop up? (They generally were doing something they shouldn’t have that caused this pop up and this will typically lower their guard when they recognize THEY are the cause of this, NOT YOU.)

 

 

How to avoid gas pump credit card skimmers as you travel this weekend

There are a lot of dangers on the road this Fourth of July weekend — this is one of the busiest travel weekends of the year, and officials are warning drivers to be cautious.

But Florida’s agriculture commissioner, Adam Putnam, is warning travelers to watch for a danger at the gas pump: devices called skimmers that could potentially steal your credit or debit card information.

John Garrity of Loxahatchee Electronics Corporation says consumers should look for a sticker indicating a security system installation on gas pumps.  (Thomas Cordy / The Palm Beach Post)
John Garrity of Loxahatchee Electronics Corporation says consumers should look for a sticker indicating a security system installation on gas pumps. (Thomas Cordy / The Palm Beach Post)

In a news release, Putnam said the skimmers “are the last thing (travelers) want to deal with” this weekend.

» MAP: Where were skimmers found in Florida last year?

Putnam said in the news release that in a little over a year, his Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has found and removed more than 250 skimmers from Florida gas station pumps.

Each skimmer is estimated to grab the information of about 100 customers, with about $1,000 stolen on average from each person — meaning each skimmer could rake in $100,000.

» RELATED: How scammers use skimmers to steal your credit card at the pump

Here are Putnam’s tips to avoid skimmers:

• Pay inside the gas station in cash.

• Check the gas pump cabinet to make sure it’s closed and that it hasn’t been tampered with. Look for security tape or a sticker, and see if it looks peeled or broken.

• Use a pump closer to the front of the store. Putnam said skimmers often are placed at pumps farther away from where clerks can easily see someone tamper with them.

• Use a credit card instead of a debit card. Most credit cards have better protection against most types of fraud, Putnam said. Plus, debit cards immediately withdraw money from your account. If you do use a debit card, choose to run it as a credit card so you don’t have to enter your PIN.

If you think your credit card number may have been stolen or otherwise compromised, report it to your credit card company.

If you believe you may have found a skimmer, contact the gas station manager, local law enforcement or the department’s consumer protection and information hotline at 800-435-7352.