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For some people, there is no substitute for the insurance agent.  For others, the Internet provides a fast and easy way to shop for insurance, compare quotes quickly, and buy coverage in the comfort of their homes or offices.

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The sheer number of providers of online binding for auto insurance has mushroomed. "Auto insurance is by far the largest market," says Shyamala Reddy, a spokeswoman for Esurance, an online provider of car insurance. "Almost everyone needs it and, in many cases, it's the only insurance product a consumer will buy," says Reddy.

 

There are significant hurdles to making online insurance binding attractive.

 

There are significant hurdles to making online insurance binding attractive to consumers. Scores of drivers still enjoy the relationship they have with their neighborhood agents, and state laws have yet to fully empower consumers to sign their names online (via digital signatures).

Lack of the "dotted line"

Traditionally, you have to sign your insurance application to bind your policy. Digital-signature technology uses an electronic signal sent over the Internet to serve as your legally binding mark. Handwritten signatures are still required in many states, and the web site where you buy your policy might still have to mail paperwork for you to sign.

Toby Alfred, Internet site general manager at Progressive, says two key issues have to be resolved before your electronic signature can be legally binding. First, states must pass laws making digital signatures as valid as handwritten ones. Second, consumers must accept the new process. "Most of our group here at Progressive spends a lot of time online and we consider ourselves technology-savvy, but very few of us have digital signatures," admits Alfred.

The challenge: Will consumers buy online?

 

Ultimately, what will drive online insurance binding is consumer demand and satisfaction.

 

Ultimately, what will drive online insurance binding is consumer demand and satisfaction.

Forrester Research, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has found consumers rate their experience at insurance marketplaces by the number of quotes they receive: The more quotes received, the more satisfied the consumer, and the more likely the consumer is to come back.

Consumers do expect to buy online, according to Forrester. By 2004, Forrester projects consumers will bind more than $12.4 billion of auto insurance on the Internet. "Online purchasing will become easier . . . and auto insurance sales will surge," the research group predicts.

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