Broad-Based Consumer Protection Coalition Forms to Tackle AOB Reform


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National Consumer Protection Week: CFSE Helping Consumers

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5 Ways the Consumer Federation of the Southeast Has Helped Consumers

March 11, 2016

National Consumer Protection Week is March 6-12, 2016. To mark the week, the Consumer Federation of the Southeast is offering a series of Top 5 articles. The Consumer Federation has constantly fought to protect you, the consumer. [See a video of Consumer Federation Executive Jennifer West discussing the issue.] Here are 5 ways we have helped consumers over the years:

1. PIP fraud
PIP fraud has been a problem in the Southeast for decades, with criminals staging fraudulent car accidents to gain access to victims’ personal injury protection (PIP) insurance. The Consumer Federation has repeatedly advocated on behalf of consumers, conducting wide-reaching surveys and providing a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves.

2. Co-pay cards
High prescription prices prevent many people from getting the medicines they need. One way around this harsh reality is co-pay cards, which pharmaceutical companies offer for individuals who can’t afford the high prices of certain drugs. A co-pay card allows the consumer to get the needed prescription for a discounted price, or even free. Whenever your doctor prescribes a medicine, make sure to ask if there is a co-pay card available to help manage the costs. The Consumer Federation has consistently advocated to get these money-saving cards in the hands of consumers.

3. AOB reform
Assignment of Benefits, or AOB, is one of the biggest issues in the home insurance industry, greatly affecting consumers. AOB is a legal tool that allows policyholders to sign over their insurance benefits to a home repair vendor or other third party without having to pay money up front to cover repair work. AOB can be useful in processing claims promptly, but a cottage industry of trial lawyers and others has increasingly used AOB to take complete control of homeowners’ policies, then inflate the costs of repairs and file costly lawsuits against property insurers. AOB can allow shady contactors to exploit unsuspecting consumers, pocketing homeowners’ right to the insurance benefits they deserve, and the Consumer Federation has worked to make sure homeowners stay in control of their policies.

4. Used-car fraud
About one in nine used cars has some sort of pre-existing condition, and to safeguard consumers from these hidden risks some states require pre-insurance inspections of certain used cars. These laws are an effective tool for law enforcement and fraud investigators, who use them as a powerful weapon against fraud. By requiring in-person inspections of affected vehicles, these laws deter scam artists from victimizing consumers with bogus transactions. Despite opposition by big insurance companies, the Consumer Federation has worked with law enforcement and fraud investigators to ensure that these laws remain on the books.

5. Drug switching
Drug switching refers to the practice of replacing a brand-name drug with a generic alternative, without telling the unsuspecting consumer. This potentially dangerous game has recently been played by insurance companies who encourage a switch to the less expensive medicines. The Consumer Federation has worked actively to end this sort of behavior, which puts profits ahead of patients’ health.

Consumer Fed Thanks Legislators for Retaining Program

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Consumer Federation Thanks Legislators for Retaining Consumer-Friendly Inspection Program

March 10, 2016

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Jennifer West, executive director of the Consumer Federation of the Southeast, today issued the following statement following the Florida Legislature’s passage of HB 659. The bill calls for a study of the state’s existing pre-insurance inspection program affecting the purchase of certain used cars:

“With the possibility of more auto fraud and higher auto insurance rates looming for consumers, the Consumer Federation of the Southeast thanks the Florida Legislature for allowing this important program to remain in place while an independent study of the program can be conducted. The pre-insurance car inspection program identifies pre-existing damages that other reporting tools cannot, and it has a proven track record of protecting consumers from increased insurance rates. This legislation represents a tremendous improvement from earlier proposals that would have eliminated the requirement entirely.

“Lawmakers have chosen a path that protects honest consumers. Pre-insurance inspections defend against potentially thousands of dollars in fraudulent claims and other schemes against consumers, helping to keep insurance premiums down for everyone. We are confident that the study called for in the bill will clearly show legislators how much their constituents benefit from the existing program.”

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About the Consumer Federation of the Southeast

The Consumer Federation of the Southeast is a not-for-profit consumer advocacy group founded in 2003 and dedicated to consumer advocacy in the Southeastern United States. Find out more at www.consumerfederationse.com.

National Consumer Protection Week: Easy Mistakes

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5 Easy Mistakes Consumers Can Make

March 10, 2016

National Consumer Protection Week is March 6-12, 2016. To mark the week, the Consumer Federation of the Southeast is offering a series of Top 5 articles. Here are 5 common – and avoidable – mistakes consumers make when shopping:

1.  Cyber-shopping in the open

Cyber security is extremely important. When you go to check out when shopping online, the tiny green lock that shows up in front of a site’s URL (web address) is actually quite important. That small symbol is the only way to know you’re making a purchase on a secure site. If the site isn’t secure, neither is the private account information you provide. Public Wi-Fi networks are another way you can leave yourself, and your information, open to everyone else on the network. Stay safe and shop online on a private, secure network.

2.  Buying from unknown vendors

You wouldn’t buy your essentials from just anyone off the street, and you should maintain those same standards when you shop online. Always make sure you are buying from reputable sites and verified users. Check reviews and look into previous sales from vendors until you can ensure that they won’t disappear once they have your money. Take special care on sites like Craigslist so you don’t end up a scam victim.

3.  Paying more for name brands

When it comes to their personal shopping, most consumers who are experts in fields like science, pharmaceuticals, and food buy generic products from their industry. They recognize that it’s often not necessary to shell out more for name brands. That’s because they know what the average consumer doesn’t know: There is no difference between the active ingredients in a name-brand product and those in a generic or store-brand equivalent. Use this insider tip to save money (but be sure to check it out – some generics don’t work as well for certain consumers).

4.  Making unwise car purchases

When buying a car, many consumers can’t wait to get the newest, fanciest set of wheels on the lot. That’s actually not always your best option – you’d be protecting your pocketbook better with a quality used car. But that’s not foolproof either, as fraudsters can fix up badly damaged cars and sell them without disclosing the vehicle’s troubled past. Always make sure to get a full report of a used car’s history, including an in-person inspection, to make sure it checks out. Sometimes an extended warranty can be a good idea, so make sure you purchase it from a reputable seller – preferably someone approved by the Better Business Bureau.

5.  Falling for auto insurance scams

Auto insurance will almost always cost more than you want to pay. But if it looks like you’re actually paying for more than you should, take a second look. While most auto insurers deal straight with their customers, some are just out to scam. Fraudulent insurers have a knack for adding extras that jack up premiums. Make sure you have an open dialogue with your insurer and take the time to read through your contract so you know exactly what you’re paying for. And, of course, shop around for the best deal.

National Consumer Protection Week: Cyber Safety

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5 Ways to Keep Yourself Cyber-Safe

March 9, 2016

National Consumer Protection Week is March 6-12, 2016. To mark the week, the Consumer Federation of the Southeast is offering a series of Top 5 articles. With so much of our lives on the Internet, it’s vital to protect those pieces of information that could make us vulnerable to online fraud. [See a video of Consumer Federation Executive Jennifer West discussing the issue.] Here are 5 tips to keep your identity safe:

1. Track your spending

Knowing what you spent and where you spent it can save you a lot of time and worry when it comes to protecting yourself online. By consistently keeping track of your finances, you can more easily spot a suspicious purchase. Keep a running list of your purchases from the month and check it against your next bank statement to ensure that you aren’t getting scammed.

2. Careful with attachments

We all know not to open email from a foreign prince, but today’s scammers have gotten more creative and more dangerous. If you receive a message with an attachment from an email address you don’t recognize, or one you haven’t heard from in a while, it’s probably best to delete the email. If you know the owner of the account, play it safe and contact them by phone.

3. Strengthen your passwords

Passwords can be tricky because you need a complicated one to make sure it’s secure – but the more complicated you get, the harder it is to remember. An easy solution is to make your password eight characters long, but one letter off from a real word … and use uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols found on the keyboard. This combination should keep your accounts locked up tight.

4. Safeguard financial information

Your bank statements and tax documents might not seem like the most sensitive information. But ensuring that only you or your family members can access them can save you a world of trouble if your laptop or computer is stolen. Mac users can try protecting these sensitive files with a strong password (see tips above) by following the steps at http://www.wikihow.com/Password-Protect-Files-on-a-Mac. While Microsoft-based computers don’t offer the option of encrypting folders, there are plenty of secure websites that will allow you to store your files on a password-protected account. These sites (for example, Dropbox or Hightail) allow you to delete the files off your hard drive or transfer them onto a flash drive instead.

5. Use popup blockers

No one has ever actually won a cruise to the Bahamas or a brand new computer simply by opening a webpage. Keep your computer safe from scam popups like these by installing a popup blocker on your browser to ensure that you (or more vulnerable members of your family) never get sucked into these “deals.”

 

National Consumer Protection Month: Get Out of Debt

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5 Small Tips to Help Get You Out of Debt

March 8, 2016

National Consumer Protection Week is March 6-12, 2016. To mark the week, the Consumer Federation of the Southeast is offering a series of Top 5 articles. Here are 5 small tips that can help you avoid or get out of debt:

1. Avoid spontaneous purchases

Spur-of-the-moment purchases are an easy way to get yourself deeper and deeper into debt. Don’t buy the trendiest new item the first time you see it, and get wise to sales gimmicks. The goal is refocusing on spending your money more effectively and efficiently, and spontaneous purchases only hinder that.

2. Stop relying on credit

Too often, consumers rely on credit and spend more than they have in the bank. Credit is useful in some situations, but not when you’re trying to get rid of debt. When you have a store credit card, you’re more inclined to shop there and use the card. To cut down on debt, evaluate your array of cards and pare your collection to the most essential. This will help you save money and eliminate headaches in the long run.

3. Plan your shopping

Without a shopping plan, especially for bigger purchases, you can waste a lot of money. Research what you need, compare prices, know exactly what you’re looking for at a particular store – and then hold yourself to that plan. Don’t get sidetracked by other products or features you hadn’t considered buying and haven’t researched.

4. Pay off your balance

The only way to get out of debt is by making sure you don’t keep adding to the debt you’ve already amassed. Don’t just focus on curtailing your spending, but also make sure you’re paying off your credit card statement each month. The longer you let purchases gain interest, the harder it’s going to be getting out of debt.

5. Create a budget

Creating a budget and sticking to it may seem like a chore, but it’s a sure-fire way to get on the path to eliminating debt. Prioritize your expenses so you know what has to be covered each week and month. Allow room for saving and cut down on spending, and you’ll be working your way out of debt in no time. As important as a budget can be, a purchase log is a game changer for your wallet. Write down everything you spend, from your Starbucks in the morning to a movie ticket at night. When you see what you’re really spending your money on, it can really help you prioritize and cut back.

National Consumer Protection Month: Shortchanging Consumers

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5 Times Businesses Shortchanged Consumers

March 7, 2016

National Consumer Protection Week is March 6-12, 2016. To mark the week, the Consumer Federation of the Southeast is offering a series of Top 5 articles. [See a video of Consumer Federation Executive Jennifer West discuss the issue.] Here are 5 significant times when businesses shortchanged consumers:

1. Corporate greed on Wall Street
Throughout our history, Americans have seen repeated cases of big businesses defrauding and deceiving consumers. Corporate greed on Wall Street has left countless trusting investors in debt or bankrupt. Among the most notorious fraud cases were the Enron scandal, Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme, Jordan Belfort’s Penny Stock Scheme, and the Lehman Brothers accounting scandal. These cases robbed investors of hundreds of billions of dollars, and even helped fuel the Great Recession of the last decade.

2. Takata airbag recall
One of the biggest recalls in American history was prompted by defective airbags manufactured by Japanese auto supplier Takata. The airbags were found to have defective inflator and propellant devices that could deploy improperly, shooting metal fragments into the passenger compartment – and, tragically, into the passengers themselves. Serious injuries and deaths resulted, leading to a recent series of recalls that spread across two dozen car brands and 134 million vehicles.

3. Fiat Chrysler’s hack attack
In 2015, it was revealed that Fiat Chrysler vehicles with touchscreens could be attacked by computer hackers. Once “in,” these hackers could turn off the engine of a moving vehicle and cause a deadly accident. To fix the problem, the automaker was forced to recall 1.4 million vehicles.

4. Hoverboards
Hoverboards became a craze in late 2015 – until consumers started to realize that the gadget of the future was catching fire and exploding without warning. Many hoverboard manufacturers failed to recognize the danger of the lithium ion batteries that powered the popular devices. When they fast-tracked the product through initial testing periods, millions of consumers were put at risk.

5. Chipotle outbreak
In 2015, the tremendously popular Mexican fast-food chain Chipotle was had to begin fighting for its life when a foodborne-illness crisis devastated the chain, making a large portion of its customer base – and its market value – disappear. In response, the company’s founder publicly apologized and the chain implemented a series of safety measures. The company received good news last month when the federal government announced that it had concluded its investigation into an E. coli outbreak tied to several of the chain’s restaurants, and the chain has launched a major push to win back its consumers.

Consumer Advocates, Roofing Contractors Call on Lawmakers to End AOB Abuse

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Consumer Advocates, Roofing Contractors
Call on Lawmakers to End AOB Abuse

Nearly 1,000 consumers sign petitions calling for reforms

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Feb. 10, 2016) – Consumer advocates and roofing contractors said today that homeowners’ insurance laws must be reformed to stop Assignment of Benefits (AOB) abuse from increasing insurance rates and harming Floridians trying to protect their homes.

The Consumer Federation of the Southeast, a former three-time Florida Insurance Consumer Advocate, and the Florida Roofing and Sheet Metal Contractors Association urged state lawmakers to pass legislation that will keep homeowners in charge of their insurance policies and prevent trial attorneys and unscrupulous home repair firms from taking control of the policies, which can lead to inflated costs and lawsuits.

“Florida can no longer stand by and watch this problem spread into a full-scale consumer crisis across the state,’’ said Jennifer West, executive director of the Consumer Federation of the Southeast. ‘’Homeowners should stay in control of the insurance policies they paid for. They shouldn’t feel pressured to sign away their rights in order to get repairs done.’’

The groups are part of the broad-based Consumer Protection Coalition, which formed in January to pass meaningful AOB reform during the 2016 legislative session. Spearheaded by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the coalition today delivered nearly 1,000 petitions signed by residents, business owners and other interested parties to Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli asking lawmakers to reform AOB laws before consumers statewide face higher insurance costs.

“These petitions clearly demonstrate that Floridians are starting to understand the scope and severity of the problem,’’ said Steve Burgess, a former three-time Insurance Consumer Advocate for the state of Florida. “They are concerned about the impact to their pocketbook and want protections to keep them in charge of their policies should something happen to their home and they need to file a claim.’’

The state’s largest association of roofing and sheet metal contractors said they support provisions of Sen. Dorothy Hukill’s bill, SB 596, that keeps policyholders in charge of the claim and their insurance policy. The bill requires that an insurance company be informed of a claim in a timely matter and allows an insurer to communicate with a policyholder, regardless of whether an AOB has been signed.

“We’re seeing a lot of companies tell homeowners they need to sign an AOB to do work that doesn’t need to be done. Then they bill the insurance company for needless costs and sue if they don’t get paid. It’s abusive and unethical,’’ said Cam Fentriss, a spokeswoman for the Florida Roofing and Sheet Metal Contractors Association (FRSA). “For the sake of all businesses doing honest work, AOB needs to be reformed.’’

Ralph Davis, owner of Streamline Roofing and Construction in Tallahassee, said bad actors give the entire profession a black eye. To prevent abuse, he supports insurance companies co-writing checks to both the property owner and contractor after the work is done to ensure claims cover actual work performed.

“We pride ourselves in high quality work and strongly oppose any contractor who recommends work that doesn’t need to be done,’’ Davis said. “We need rules in place to ensure the system isn’t abused.’’

The 800-member FRSA is particularly concerned that the high costs of inflated claims and legal fees when a lawsuit is filed are hindering the state’s ability to protect policyholders against future hurricanes. Fentriss cited statistics from Citizens Property Insurance Corp. showing that for every insurance premium dollar collected, only 18 cents goes toward saving for a future hurricane, while 28 cents goes to cover non-weather-related water damage costs.

The call from consumer advocates and roofing contractors follows the release of a report by the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation (OIR) showing that water damage claims and the use of AOB are rising rapidly statewide. The analysis of the top 25 private homeowners’ insurance companies in Florida showed that water claims involving AOB cost, on average, about 50 percent more than claims without an AOB, and that the total number of water claims with an AOB rose from 6 percent in 2010 to 16 percent in 2015.

The OIR report warned that if current trends persist, consumers could face rate increases of 10 percent or more annually, as insurers grapple with rising losses associated with an increase in water claims.

Water remediation companies supporting AOB reform said AOBs aren’t necessary and open the door to abusive business practices.

“We don’t need to obtain AOBs from homeowners to make sure repair work is done properly and we get paid by insurance companies,” said William “Bubba” Ryan, president and CEO of Rytech, a 30-year-old water damage remediation firm that operates in 20 states, including Florida. “In recent years, we’ve seen an explosion in the solicitation of AOBs and questionable practices by some vendors operating in Florida. Assignment of Benefits abuse hurts consumers and the reputation of companies that are trying to do the right thing.”

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The Consumer Protection Coalition is a broad-based group of business leaders, consumer advocates, real estate agents, construction contractors, insurance agents and insurance trade groups pushing for reforms to end Assignment of Benefits (AOB) abuse. Learn more about the Coalition at FightFraud.Today.

Consumer Federation Commends Legislative Approval of AOB Reform

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Consumer Federation Commends Legislative Approval of AOB Reform

~ Says Assignment of Benefits Abuse Targets Consumers ~

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Feb. 1, 2016) – The Consumer Federation of the Southeast today commended Florida lawmakers after two legislative panels have advanced legislation designed to reform Florida’s Assignment of Benefits (AOB) law. The Consumer Federation is part of the Consumer Protection Coalition, which was established to push for reforms to end AOB abuse.

“Florida’s current AOB system allows shady contactors to exploit unsuspecting consumers, pocketing homeowners’ right to the insurance benefits they deserve,” said Jennifer West, executive director of the Consumer Federation. “Bill sponsors Senator Dorothy Hukill and Representative Matt Caldwell are true champions for Florida consumers, and insurance ratepayers across Florida appreciate their commitment to erasing fraud from the AOB process. We’re pleased the Legislature is moving to fix a system that allows for easy abuse.”

AOB is a legal tool that allows policyholders to sign over their insurance benefits to a home repair vendor or other third party without having to pay money up front to cover repair work. While AOB can be useful in processing claims promptly, a cottage industry of trial lawyers, unregulated water extraction firms, and other vendors has increasingly used AOB to take complete control of homeowners’ policies, then inflate the costs of repairs and file costly lawsuits against property insurers. These suits are often filed without the knowledge or consent of the homeowner.

Senator Hukill is sponsoring SB 596, which was approved 11-1 by the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee today. The House Insurance and Banking Subcommittee voted 12-0 last week in support of HB 1097, sponsored by Representative Caldwell.

Broad-Based Consumer Protection Coalition Forms to Tackle AOB Reform

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The Consumer Federation of the Southeast is a proud member of the Consumer Protection Coalition, formed to advocate for reforms designed to end abuse of Assignment of Benefits in Florida. This abuse drives up consumers’ rates for homeowner’s insurance. Below is a press release issued by the Coalition, including a quote from Consumer Federation Executive Director Jennifer West. More information on the Coalition is available at www.fightfraud.today/.

BROAD-BASED CONSUMER PROTECTION COALITION FORMS TO TACKLE AOB REFORM

Group Seeks Legislative Fix to AOB Abuse That Threatens Higher Homeowners Insurance Costs

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Jan. 12, 2016) — A broad-based group of business leaders, consumer advocates, real estate agents, construction contractors, insurance agents and insurance trade groups announced today they have formed the Consumer Protection Coalition and are pushing for reforms to end Assignment of Benefits (AOB) abuse on its new web platform—FightFraud.Today.

The Consumer Protection Coalition is devoted to protecting consumers by ensuring homeowners maintain control of their insurance policies, rather than relinquish them to scheming vendors seeking to pad their profits using AOB.

Led by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the coalition is concerned about the impact of AOB abuse on the state’s consumers, insurance costs and overall business climate, and urges state lawmakers to take action during the 2016 legislative session before the problem worsens. Coalition members support AOB legislation filed by state Sen. Dorothy Hukill (SB 596) and Rep. Matt Caldwell (HB 1097).

‘’Assignment of Benefits abuse is a huge threat to Florida’s families and businesses and must be stopped,’’ said Mark Wilson, President and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce. “Billboard trial lawyers and questionable vendors are taking advantage of AOB to essentially steal money from consumers and wreak havoc on our state’s insurance market. For the sake of attracting new businesses and jobs, we can’t let that happen.’’

The coalition has launched a website on the issue, FightFraud.Today, which includes an online petition for consumers to sign urging lawmakers to pass meaningful AOB reform. It also contains consumer-friendly education materials detailing the AOB fraud scheme.

AOB is a legal tool that allows policyholders to sign over their insurance benefits to a third party, such as a home repair vendor, without having to pay money up front to cover repair work. While AOB can be useful in processing claims promptly, a cottage industry of trial lawyers, unregulated water extraction firms and other vendors have increasingly used AOB to take complete control of homeowners’ policies, then inflate the costs of repairs and file costly lawsuits against property insurers. These suits are often filed without the knowledge or consent of the homeowner.

Coalition members advocate that consumers don’t need to sign an Assignment of Benefit to handle insurance claims for emergency repair work. They can simply direct their insurance company to pay vendors and, if they don’t feel like their claim was handled properly, they can take action against their insurer.

“Homeowners should not be asked to sign away their rights simply to get needed home repairs. A practice that depends on consumers skimming quickly over the fine print and unknowingly signing their rights away is a recipe for exploitation, fraud and manipulation. The state of Florida should do everything it can to protect homeowners from Assignment of Benefits abuse,” said Jennifer West, executive director of the Consumer Federation of the Southeast, which is a member of the coalition.

Inflated claims and lawsuits involving AOB have forced premiums to go up for consumers in South Florida and, if left unchecked, could result in a full-scale consumer crisis that increases rates statewide. After a decade without a hurricane, Florida should be benefiting from reduced rates—not higher ones— and focusing on protecting against the next major storm.

“We’re hearing on a daily basis that consumers are being pressured to sign an AOB and now wish they had consulted their insurance company first,’’ said Dulce Suarez-Resnick of the Latin American Association of Insurance Agencies. “Insurers in South Florida have become so concerned about inflated claims and lawsuits that it’s impacting the availability and affordability of property insurance. That’s alarming for everyone, especially consumers.’’

Assignment of Benefits abuse has become widespread in South Florida and is quickly spreading. Statewide, the number of AOB lawsuits has grown from 9,424 in 2005 and 2006 to 92,521 in 2013 and 2014. In fact, state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. was recently forced to raise insurance premiums more than 8 percent in areas of South Florida because of the steep rise in lawsuits stemming from non-weather-related water damage claims. Citizens said dubious water damage claims and AOB lawsuits were the single reason why rates went up in Miami-Dade County, where water loss claims now account for more than half of every premium dollar collected. Otherwise, nearly all of the policyholders would have seen a rate decrease.

“Every honest contractor in the state of Florida should be concerned about Assignment of Benefits abuse and its impact on the insurance market,’’ said Cam Fentriss, a representative for the Florida Roofing and Sheet Metal Contractors Association. “Contractors don’t need an AOB to get paid by insurance companies, and anyone who pressures homeowners into signing one gives a black eye to our entire industry of hardworking professionals. We fully support reforming AOB.’’

Consumer Federation of the Southeast Offers Tips for Safe, Smart Holiday Shopping

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Consumer Federation of the Southeast Offers Tips  for Safe, Smart Holiday Shopping

As shoppers make the yearly mad dash to the holiday shopping finish line, the Consumer Federation of the Southeast (CFSE) has timely words of caution to help consumers make sure it’s truly a “season of peace.”

With retailers predicting a 3.7 percent increase in holiday sales this year, Consumer Federation Executive Director Jennifer West says consumers should be careful to keep grinches from stealing their holiday cheer.

“The well-informed consumer can avoid falling prey to overspending, scams and cybercriminals this holiday season,” West said. “By heeding these tips, consumers will be able to spend the holidays enjoying family and loved ones, not worrying about picking up the pieces from looming debt or stolen joy.”

The Consumer Federation of the Southeast is the leading voice for more than 98 million consumers in the nation’s fastest growing region. To get through the last week of the holiday gift-giving season free of crisis, buyer’s remorse and holiday shopping hangovers, the Consumer Federation offers these useful tips:

  • Set a budget and stick to it. Make a list and check it twice; write down who you want to purchase gifts for and how much you plan to spend. Most importantly, budget responsibly – don’t break the bank, and pay your bills first. There is no gift worth going into debt for. Consider using cash, which makes the purchase price more real. Cash is more likely to you keep within budget — and away from credit cards and interest. To shop online, you can use cash to purchase an American Express, Visa or similar gift. This will protect you from fraud and theft while keeping you within your set dollar limit.
  • Shopping around is just a click away. While time may not be your friend at this point of the season, the Internet is. Savvy shopping is easier than ever, with a world full of information right at your fingertips. Even if you’re not looking to make your purchases online, a quick Web search of what you’re looking for will help you quickly identify how to get the most bang for your buck. And remember, many stores are willing to sell an item at their competitor’s price – or even lower. So research store policies on price matching (and coupons) before leaving home for your favorite local retailer.
  • Stay cyber secure. Online shopping is a popular and convenient option, especially if you want to avoid crowds and long lines. If you’re among the two-thirds of Americans who have smartphones, you’re practically carrying the stores right in your pocket. But be careful where you choose to do your online shopping, as making purchases on a public WiFi network is risky – it may be convenient, but it’s not always secure. Stay safe and make your online purchases from home or through a Virtual Private Network installed on your computer or mobile device. Try to buy online only from secure web sites (look for “https” in the web address) and use complex passwords that you change often.
  • Avoid scams. Stay off the fast track to a not-so-happy holiday by taking proactive steps against scams. If social media or email bring you an unsolicited deal that seems too good to be true, it’s probably a scam. Seek out online reviews of dubious websites, deals or retailers and include a keyword such as “scam” in your search. If you come across complaints, you’ll have to weigh whether the risk is worth the investment. Remember that it’s always best to buy from trusted retailers with secure websites and reputable track records for shipping – especially as your shopping deadline draws near. Finally, save copies of order numbers, refund and return policies, and warranties.

“For countless Americans, the holiday season is truly the most wonderful time of the year. By following these simple tips, consumers can keep it that way and avoid the proverbial lump of coal in their stocking,” West said.

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