Insurance departments help consumersYears ago I had an ugly fight with my auto insurance company. I called about additional coverage and my insurer got the erroneous impression that I was married. Ergo, my so-called wife should be on my policy.

The insurer kept calling ... and calling, gnawing on me like a dog on a rawhide bone. "We have you on tape!" shrieked one shrill agent.

Enough was enough. I finally told my insurer (also on tape) that if the harassment didn't stop, I would complain to my state's insurance office. And I was very specific. I gave my insurer our state commissioner's name and the name of the person in his office who would be handling my complaint.

Commissioners are politicians, too

While most state insurance commissioners or regulators -- some of whom have other duties -- are appointed, some are elected. But one thing is certain: Many have higher political aspirations. In states such as California and Georgia, insurance commissioners have a history of running for governor. That means they love publicity, particularly if it makes them look consumer-friendly.

But even if they don't run for state office, they have other positions in mind. Florida insurance commissioner Kevin McCarty, who fought for hurricane-ridden residents against property insurers like State Farm when it tried to raise rates, is now president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, which sets the standards nationwide for the insurance industry.

Here is contact information for state insurance departments.

Y'all call back now

His expected successor is Louisiana insurance regulator Jim Donelon. But don't be fooled by this genial Irishman. He takes a hard stance in his dealings with insurers when he finds out from his state's residents that their settlement claims were inadequate.

A recent press release from this gracious Southerner made a righteous brag about how much he'd accomplished during the first half of this year. He helped policyholders recover more than $2.6 million from Louisiana property-casualty, health, and life insurance companies. Donelon said he handled 1,500 complaints and that nearly all of the consumers received more money. He gave out his toll-free number and encouraged further calls.

My state, New Jersey, which has more residents than Louisiana, said it handled nearly 6,700 consumer complaints and got back more than $32 million, an average of almost $5,000 per policyholder. Florida reported that its Division of Consumer Services got one Dade County resident nearly $200,000. I couldn't find current figures for our largest state, California. Its Consumer Communications Bureau hotline is described as its commissioner's "eyes and ears," but the Consumer Services Division handles the actual complaints. And if you want to find out how many complaints there were against an insurer, the "shame list" is on its website.

Fight to the finish

I know that the traditional way of dealing with your insurer is through mediation, arbitration or, heaven forbid, a lengthy and costly court case. But before you take that route, why not get someone with clout on your side, like your state insurance commissioner?

So did I succeed? Judge for yourself. After I made that threat -- on tape -- I got a three-page letter from the assistant to the chairman of my insurance company explaining why they were totally justified in taping my conversations and in trying to raise my rates. And as a preemptive strike, my insurer sent a copy to our state insurance commissioner.

But the important thing was: The harassment stopped.