Hurricane season begins in Florida

John O'Brien Jun. 1, 2007, 1:00pm

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - With the first day of hurricane season arriving in Florida, so, too, did another first -- the first consumer advisory.

Attorney General Bill McCollum warned Floridians Friday of price-gougers and identity thieves who pop up in the wake of catastrophes.

"Safety is first and foremost. I encourage every individual in our state to be prepared early for the storms this hurricane season and not wait until one is upon us," McCollum said. "Additionally, Florida citizens should be aware that while identity theft or price gouging sometimes occur during recovery efforts, the Office of the Attorney General is committed to protecting our residents from anyone who attempts to victimize them in the wake of a disaster."

State law prohibits "extreme" increases in the price of "essential commodities" like food, water, hotels, ice, gasoline, lumber and equipment needed as a direct result of an officially declared state of emergency, McCollum said.

Price-gougers are subject to $1,000 per violation in civil penalties and a maximum of $25,000 for multiple violations committed in a single day.

He also said that after storms, papers containing personally identifiable information can call into the wrong hands, putting citizens at risk for identity theft.

"The whole price-gouging thing is nothing more than demagoguery by politicians," said David Rossmiller, a partner at Dunn Carney in Portland, Ore., managing editor of the Insurance Coverage Law Blog and a former reporter at the now-defunct Phoenix Gazette who has been closely following the issues facing Florida concerning its governmental handling of catastrophes.

"If there's a fire in the room, and you're the only person with an axe to break the door down, then you have a commodity that's in demand. For someone to say you have to give it away or sell it at a lesser price than what people will pay for it is kind of insolent and doesn't recognize reality.

"If I need gas I can't go down to the gas station on the corner and say, 'Hey you can only charge me 89 cents per gallon because I remember paying that 12 years ago.'"

Rossmiller also feels this hurricane season might prove extremely tricky for the state's insurance market. The state-run Citizens Property Insurance has a $432 billion exposure to risk, according to a report by The Associated Press.

A.M. Best, a full-service credit rating organization dedicated to serving the financial services industries, including the banking and insurance sectors, says former Attorney General and current Gov. Charlie Crist's measures have left the state exposed.

McCollum has been advising Crist on the insurance situation.

"A.M. Best views the recent legislative changes as weakening the business profile of companies with significant concentration of Florida business," a release from the company says. "In addition, the prospective capitalization of property insurance writers is weakened, as they carry the burden of potentially unrecoverable reinsurance in the event of a major catastrophic event."

Crist and the state Legislature successfully passed measures earlier this year that prevented insurance companies from dropping policyholders until after this year's hurricane season.

McCollum told LegalNewsline that a long-term solution is needed for the issue of reinsurance.

"I was in Congress for many years and authored a catastrophe insurance bill back after Hurricane Andrew," he said. "There appears to be a long-term insurance crisis, and there needs to be a solution that addresses reinsurance."

A catastrophe fund that helps pay for events that only occur "once in a hundred years," is what McCollum desires. That timetable, though, has been a problem. Insurers in Florida want to base their premiums on weather patterns of the previous five years (which include the hectic seasons of 2004-05), while the state government feels they should be based on the last 100 years.

Citizens Property Insurance is the largest insurer in the state. Without being able to raise premiums (there is also a freeze on increasing premiums), some feel private businesses will not be able to compete with Citizens.

Private insurers may draw from the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund -- reinsurance provided by taxpayers.

"Insurers will not be willing to insure catastrophic events unless there is some reinsurance possibility," McCollum said.

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