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Thursday, July 13, 2000

1 Error in 300,000 Is Not Bad--Unless It Affects You

Communications with insurance companies can be a problem, so many readers tell me.

But Farmers Insurance Co., the firm this tale involves, says that of 300,000 transactions a month in its Los Angeles Service Center, only about 50 result in customer letters asking for further action.

Maybe the case of Paterno Aspiras of Bellflower, a retiree, is an aberration, as Kitty Miller, a company spokeswoman, suggests.

"I don't want to tell people this never happens," she remarked. "It does, but it is highly unusual. In Aspiras' particular circumstances, it never should have reached the point that it did."

Like many fathers, Aspiras was willing to be a guarantor of the payments when his daughter, Anne, still living at home, bought a Honda Accord back in 1993.

But when his daughter got married and the car was paid off in 1996, Aspiras' name was taken off as guarantor. Imagine his astonishment, then, when he suddenly got a notice of cancellation of a Farmers insurance policy on the car late last year, effective Jan. 13, 2000.

His astonishment only grew when he saw that Farmers expected him to pay the amount his daughter and son-in-law were said to owe for coverage between June 29, 1999, and the cancellation date.

"This was over two years after Farmers canceled coverage for the [car] for nonpayment of premium," Aspiras told me in a June 28 letter.

In fact, he said his daughter and son-in-law "had had no business dealings with any Farmers Insurance agency anywhere in California beyond April 15, 1997. Necessarily, [they] had their car insured with another carrier after [that]."

Aspiras himself, however, had been a Farmers customer for 20 years, so, at first, he felt confident he'd be able to take care of the matter quickly, explain it to Farmers and get it to rectify its records.

But Farmers did not even respond to a letter he sent to an operations manager Jan. 7.

"Instead, it forwarded the account to Credit Collection Services in Newton, Mass!," Aspiras wrote.

In the meantime, Aspiras had gone for help to his agent's office manager, Sherry Trujillo-Vander Dussen of La Mirada. She wrote to him Feb. 25 saying Farmers' regional office was working on canceling the bill he had received.

"Please disregard any further cancellation notices you receive on the '94 Accord," Trujillo-Vander Dussen wrote. "I'm sure you are aware that from time to time some glitches come up and need to be handled in stride."

Aspiras sent a copy of that letter to the collection agency and asked it to stop dunning him.

This did no good, however. On June 5, the agency sent him a curt note: "According to our client's records, this balance [of $384.23] is correctly stated, and the full balance is due. This office will expect your check for payment in full."

Aspiras said he tried to reach the office manager again for reassurance that Farmers was proceeding to cancel his bill, but Trujillo Vander-Dussen did not return his call. (She says she cannot recall getting a second call from him.)

On June 27, Aspiras tried again with the collection agency, phoning it to see how matter stood, but was informed that it "will not cancel the bill, unless advised to do so in writing by Farmers Insurance."

The "bottom line," he wrote me the next day, "is I need to put an end to this stressful situation. I am hopeful you will help me."

As in so many cases, once I brought this to the attention of an official spokeswoman for the main company, the matter was quickly ironed out.

Within a few days, Miller informed me, "We've called the collection agency. We stopped the collection. We can assure Mr. Aspiras we have retro-canceled the policy. . . . He owes us no money. . . .

"He will receive a computer generated letter to that effect, sort of formal and impersonal. But he will also receive a letter of apology from our service center."

But Miller said there remained a mystery just why the incorrect bill was sent out in the first place.

"Someone issued a change request on June 29, 1999, and put the daughter on his policy," she said.

"But the daughter's original agent has left the company and the microfiche records do not show who initiated the change. That information is simply not part of the record. It's either missing or it's not part of the record in the first place.

"I do believe what happened in Mr. Aspiras' case was human error," Miller said.

This, however, is necessarily somewhat speculative, I thought.

What went wrong when Aspiras started contacting company officials and his own agent, pointing out his daughter hadn't had a policy for three years, I asked.

"Unfortunately, Mr. Aspiras did not receive the attention he should have," Miller said.

Before he got word of the company's change in attitude, Aspiras had lost patience. He told his agent he was dropping all his Farmers policies and later told me that under a discount program from the American Assn. of Retired Persons he has moved his own policies to the Hartford company.

He'd been disturbed because so many of his calls to Farmers had only gotten voice mail, rather than a human being, Aspiras told me.

Miller expressed regret. "Terry Smith, vice president and executive director of the Los Angeles Service Center, will write him a personal letter" about the cancellation, she said.

"We don't like to lose a customer of 20 years standing," she said. "Of course, we'd like him back."

This cannot be the only case, no matter how few Miller suggests there may be at Farmers, where lapses in customer service have sent consumers elsewhere. Aspiras' reaction seems to me understandable. But, frankly, for a retired person to move from one company he's had for many years to another does not always work out well, especially if an accident or citations occur later.


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