The 5 biggest lies told to car insurance companies
Fudging on your car insurance application to save on the premium may seem like a harmless white lie, but it can spell trouble for you down the road.
A new report by Quality Planning Corp. in San Francisco says car insurance companies lost $15.9 billion in 2008 from what it calls "premium leakage" — meaning loss of revenue due to the inability of insurers to keep track of changes in customers' situations that affect prices. The number represents almost 10 percent of the total $167 billion in personal auto premium written.
"It's a major problem, and some companies are taking it very seriously," says Quality Planning senior vice president Bob U'Ren. His company designs solutions for insurers to validate policyholder information and cut premium losses. In other words, they're in the business of making sure you're telling the truth.
Here are the most common misrepresentations customers make to their car insurance companies.
1. Under-estimating the number of miles driven
Whether out of ignorance or as a strategy to cut their premiums, many people lowball the number of miles they drive. Some simply forget to call their car insurance agents when they get new jobs that lengthen their commutes. This lie was the most misrepresented rating factor in 2008 and accounted for an industry loss of more than $3 billion.
Why should you care about lies?
For one thing, truthful customers end up paying higher premiums to make up for those who lie.
In addition, if a car insurance company catches you in a lie, it can cancel your policy and refuse to pay your claim — assuming you provided inaccurate information intentionally.
Some of the misinformation reported to insurers stems from outright consumer fraud — people deliberately lying to their car insurance companies in order to score lower premiums.
"People know how insurance works and how the game is played," U'Ren says.
But most misinformation is the result of unreported lifestyle changes. For example, in 52 percent of household auto insurance policies, there's a change in the vehicle or drivers each year. And more than 25 percent of workers change jobs every year, which affects the number of miles driven, according to Quality Planning.
"Oftentimes, the insurance agent is the last person you think to contact," U'Ren says.
2. "Forgetting" to report all the drivers in the household
Up to 2 percent of policies written are for households with a driver who's not listed on the policy — and that "missing" driver is usually a high-premium teenage driver or an adult driver with a lot of premium-boosting baggage. In conducting premium audits, Quality Planning asked one mom why her 17-year-old daughter, a licensed driver, wasn't listed on the policy. Her reply: "I totally forgot she was in the household." Unrated drivers accounted for $2.6 billion in lost premium in 2008.
3. Fudging the garage location
Quality Planning noted a slight upward trend in the number of people misreporting where they park their cars, particularly in big cities, where garage locations can affect premiums dramatically. Location discrepancies led to $1.3 billion in lost premium in 2008.
4. Claiming discounts that no longer apply
In some cases, drivers conveniently forget to tell their car insurance agents that the conditions that gave them a discount have changed. For example, perhaps they ended membership in an organization that made them eligible for a special premium rate. These wrongly applied discounts, based on misinformation about the driver or the car, added up to $2.9 billion in 2008.
5. Misstating how the car is used
Some customers fail to tell their car insurance companies that they're using the car for business. An at-home daycare provider, for instance, may neglect to mention that the household van is used to transport the kids to the park every day. Insurers lost $1.5 billion in premium as a result of this type of misrepresentation.
How car insurance companies find out
There are a variety of ways car insurance companies can find out that you lied. If the teenage son you fail to list on your policy gets in a car accident, it'll be pretty obvious.
Insurance companies also turn to outfits like Quality Planning, which use sophisticated analytical testing to uncover rating errors. The company puts an insurer's policies through a battery of more than 150 tests, cross-referencing data and employing pattern-matching algorithms to identify errors and discrepancies that suggest fraud or misrepresentation.
If you think the insurance company can't find out how far you drive every year, think again. Odometer readings taken at smog testing stations, for instance, can be compared to what you report to your insurance agent, U'Ren says. It's just one example of how your information can be checked.
Given the turbulent economy, insurers have good reason to pay attention. According to Quality Planning, every 1 percent reduction in rating error can result in a 20 percent profit gain. So don't be surprised if the information you report to your car insurance company comes under increasing scrutiny.
About the author: Barbara Marquand is a freelance writer who writes frequently about business and personal finance.