FORT MYERS, Fla.- If you own a home in southwest Florida, chances are you have Citizens Insurance. Yet again, Citizens Insurance is in the center of another class action lawsuit that alleges the insurance company, which is backed by taxpayers, has been knowingly over charging customers.
The most recent lawsuits alleges that Citizens illegally removed discount credits from storm shutters and other hurricane protection in order to intentionally drive up rates. Some insurance industry insiders say the consumer losses from these alleged over charges could be in the millions of dollars, all with south Florida being the center of a massive state-wide issue.
The class action lawsuit alleges Citizens Home Insurance Company intentionally over charges customers through the use of rebuilding estimating software that "can be manipulated to artificially inflate the replacement cost of a home." In simple language according to critics, pad rebuilding costs to overcharge consumers.
Why should you care? Because the bigger the estimate that comes out of the computer program, the bigger your insurance bills will be. And that's exactly what Belen Valladores says has been driving up our insurance bills.
"I think they have manipulated the price lists, manipulated the depreciations," said Belen Valladares, private insurance adjuster.
But were customers being over charged?
"There was a time, there was a 10-month period where yes, that was going on," said Dulce Suarez Resnick, Miami insurance agent.
Suarez Resnick thought something was wrong with her Citizens insurance quite, which came in much higher than several other companies.
"In my case I had three different cost-timators done from three different types of software. And my houses' replacement cost ranged from $364,000 through $519,000," said Suarez Resnick.
Had she gone with Citizens original software estimate, she would have seen much higher bills.
"If you're paying $3,000 for $364,000 worth of coverage, you're going to pay $49 or $5,000 for $519,000 worth of coverage. It's a big difference in your premium," said Suarez Resnick.
Citizens reportedly modified it's software last October following this lawsuit, alleging it intentionally drove up customers' premiums. State Representative Frank Artiles is a long time critic of Citizens Insurance program.
"Yes they were over charged and I believe that the costs to consumers in the millions of dollars, especially here in south Florida," said Artiles.
So were Floridians ripped off?
"Absolutely, positively, 100% yes," said Artiles.
Who were the victims in the state of Florida by these possible over charges?
"From West Palm Beach down. We are ground zero," said Artiles.
Last year, state lawmakers passed a new law allowing homeowners to submit independent repair estimates but critics say Citizens is not passing that information along to it's customers or agents.
"I don't think that information has trickled down and I truly believe that Citizens does not tell it's agents and or their agents know and it could be a savings of millions of dollars throughout South Florida," said Artiles.
Citizens isn't commenting on the pending class action lawsuit. The software company they used originally has been dismissed from the case.
What can you do right now? Homeowners can ask agents for rebuilding cost estimates when it comes to renew your insurance politics. If you don't like what you get, try another company with a different program. It could save you big bucks in the end.