TAMPA, Fla. - It's a consumer-friendly law that's getting costly for honest consumers.
The guarantee of a free, zero-deductible windshield replacement in Florida helps keep drivers safe behind the wheel, but unscrupulous glass companies -- pushing unnecessary replacements to undamaged windshields -- are taking advantage of the law and pushing up rates for all policyholders. A recent report ranked Florida No. 1 in the country for auto insurance fraud.
A two-year 10 News investigation revealed glass dealers and salesmen around Tampa Bay soliciting customers at car washes, gas stations, large parking lots, and even with robocalls. In many cases, undercover 10 News reporters and producers were approached and told their virtually-unblemished windshields needed replacement.
UPDATE: Investigation gets State Senator to draft legislation
And while most glass dealers proved to be honest during undercover shoots, industry experts say the "bad apples" are growing fast. With windshield replacements costing insurance companies between $500-$1000 a piece, much of it profit to the glass company, questionable claims have soaring 500 percent in recent years, according to industry estimates.
"It's not fair to the general public, the policy holders, the agents, or the good companies in the industry that are trying to make a living doing the right thing," said Shelton Radebaugh with well-known local glass company Lloyd's of Shelton.
10 News had a new SUV -- loaded with cameras -- checked out by Radebaugh and Bob Paul, a claims representative with State Farm's Special Investigative Unit. The windshield passed with flying colors.
And while many windshield salesmen didn't bother suggesting a replacement on the new windshield, one tried to suggest a small speck was a dangerous crack that needed replacement (watch the video above).
When 10 News took in an older SUV, one with tiny windshield imperfections, but nothing either Paul or Radebaugh considered damage or dangerous, another salesman told an undercover producer she needed a replacement and the "cracks" could be violating the law. If she had comprehensive insurance, she was told the replacement was free.
The episode echoes complaints that have been flowing into the state for years about unnecessary replacements pitched by solicitors at public venues or even door-to-door. While few consumers complain about receiving a free windshield, the common theme in the hundred-plus complaints reviewed by 10 News involve pushy or unsolicited salesmen.
The business has been so lucrative and competitive the airwaves and Internet are now filled with companies offering incentives to "buy back your old windshield." The 10 News Investigators found Auto Glass America offering $100 in Restaurant.com gift cards, local companies offering $60 Visa cards, and Craig's List ads offering up to $100 cash.
Many of the incentive-offering companies did not push unnecessary replacements on 10 News producers, like Naser Bayazidi's AA Auto Glass out of Brandon, which offers a $50 VISA card for insurance claims.
"I just try to do (things) right," Bayazidi told 10 News after he indicated to undercover producers they didn't need a replacement.
Radebaugh also offers what he calls a "thank you gift" to his customers, a box of steaks he buys at wholesale prices inexpensively. But he says his company's long-standing incentive has been dwarfed recently by some other companies' incentives.
WHAT WARRANTS A REPLACEMENT?
Paul and Radebaugh agree a windshield that needs replacing involves a "starbreak"-type of crack that penetrates the windshield's outer layer. These type of cracks can expand easily.
And while they also said major chips in front of the driver could warrant replacement as well, little nicks or pits are common and pose little-to-no threat to drivers. These pits cannot expand and will never cause the windshield to shatter.
"It would be an act of fraud," said Radebaugh, "for me to say, 'Get your policy out and call it in' (for common windshield nicks)."
But that's one of the leading causes of windshield repair fraud in Florida.
OTHER WINDSHIELD FRAUD
Paul says State Farm has received other fraud reports that include:
- Salesmen damaging windshields in car washes or driveways so they needed replacing.
- Salesmen using high-pressure tactics -- often referred to as "bullying" -- to scare drivers into unnecessary replacements.
- Glass companies using cheap glass on a replacement, but billing insurance for expensive, top-of-the-line glass.
Radebaugh adds that some companies aren't even delivering their promised incentives, using bait-and-switch tactics to win business.
But despite mountains of evidence indicating fraud, arrests are few and far between. Most of the fraud referrals Florida's CFO office receives are dropped, often because of lack of evidence.
Because insurance companies seldom send out adjusters to inspect glass claims, much of the process is on the honor system. And by the time the state investigates possible fraud, the questionable glass is long-gone. Often, the salesmen are too.
ADVICE FOR CONSUMERS
Insurance companies and Radabaugh agree consumers should ask their insurance company for a trusted glass company if they have any sort of damage they want replaced.
"If you get an unsolicited sales pitch for a new windshield, it's always a good idea to first make a call to your insurance company before you replace it," said Lynne McChristian with the industry-backed Insurance Information Institute. "Many insurers have procedures in place for claims related to windshield repair and replacement, plus you'll be guaranteed a quality product and expert installation."
Read: National Insurance Crime Bureau brochure on protecting yourself
But Chuck Isaly, owner of Auto Glass America, tells 10 News customers have the right to go to anyone they want, and should lean more on referrals from friends. Isaly maintains his company uses better glass than the insurance company's preferred vendors.
Either way, it's a good idea to find a trusted glass expert now, before the day comes when you need one in a pinch and have fewer options.
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