State regulators claim agent preyed on senior citizens

Apr 15, 2011

The following article was published in the Sarasota Herald Tribune on April 15, 2010:

Investigation:  State Regulators Claim Agent Preyed on Senior Citizens

By Paige St. John and Eric Ernst

Dozens of elderly Sarasota County residents risked losing their homes after they were sold fake insurance policies by a Nokomis agent who pocketed their premiums, state regulators allege.

The Department of Financial Services late Thursday issued an emergency order suspending the license of Debra Kay Wanless, claiming she collected money from the residents and used it to to buy herself food and gasoline.

In 50 complaints filed with the state, residents said they paid their insurance premiums for as long as two years and were unwittingly left without coverage, whether their washer leaked or a hurricane tore off the roof.

“It’s theft,” said Dick Davis, 73, a Venice Isle resident who for two years paid Wanless for homeowners coverage from “Lloyd’s London” without ever receiving a copy of the policy.

“It’s the same as taking the wallet out of your hip pocket. And we can’t afford it. There are a lot of people in here where a thousand bucks means a lot to them.”

After speaking with a state fraud investigator earlier this month, Davis demanded Wanless provide a copy of his policy. He instead left her Goodnight Insurance agency with a $946 refund.

Davis is among dozens of consumers from at least two coastal Sarasota County housing communities who bought suspect policies from Wanless.

Late Thursday, the Department of Financial Services filed an emergency order against Wanless. It alleges she preyed on senior citizens living in manufactured homes, where private property insurance is hard to come by. The order alleges Wanless sold coverage, then used the money “to purchase groceries, gasoline, and other items.”

Wanless’ Tamiami Trail agency, located in a Nokomis strip mall, was closed Thursday and she could not be located for comment.

Her attorney, Donald Scarlett, said he had just taken the case and was not prepared to comment.

Word of the cheap insurance to be had from Wanless’ Goodnight Insurance spread fast around the shuffleboards and heated swimming pools of Venice Isle and Turner Cove communities.

“I hate to say it, but it was too good to be true,” said Richard Nuzzo, another Venice Isle resident who bought a policy from Wanless at almost half the cost of the replacement policy he found this week.

He later learned Lloyd’s of London, the supposed carrier of his policy, had no record of him.

A former association manager at Venice Isle estimated 100 residents bought coverage from Wanless. At nearby Turner Cove, another 30 homeowners had purchased the suspect coverage.

The Department of Financial Services, which licenses insurance agents in Florida, said it has received 50 complaints against Wanless and her Goodnight Insurance agency this year.

Consumers attempting to check out the policies she sold would have had little to warn them.

State licensure records show only that Wanless, an agent since at least 2000, was authorized to sell policies for four regulated insurers, including Universal Property and Casualty.

Because Lloyd’s of London is not a regulated carrier in Florida, it would not be listed.

The online record makes no mention that Wanless was put on probation and fined $3,500 five years ago for a similar complaint of pocketing policyholder premiums.

DFS spokeswoman Alexis Lambert said Wanless allegedly issued a false mobile home insurance policy to a Venice resident and kept the premium for herself.

Such complaints are not rare. Lambert said DFS has 118 complaints against insurance agents for withholding premium money so far this year.

John Conger, a former manager at Venice Isle, said he was among a long line of customers who stood outside Goodnight last Thursday seeking refunds, and got his $830 check before the door was closed. That Friday, the door remained closed.

Conger said he learned his policy was a fake when he dialed the supposed underwriter’s office in Louisiana. “They said, ‘We never heard of you,'” Conger said. “Fake numbers; fake policies.”

Some residents said they were able to collect claims checks for minor damage repairs, but would have been left out in the cold if there had been a hurricane or other catastrophe.

They told similar stories of unusually cheap policies, or coverage other carriers would not provide. In each case, they said they were not given copies of their actual policies but handed generic summaries and declaration pages from “certain underwriters at Lloyd’s London.”

Some later received cryptic, undated letters from Wanless, informing them “the policy we sent you is not a valid policy” and offering to set up replacement coverage.

Insurance agents now helping Wanless’ former customers find replacement coverage said Citizens Property Insurance has waived for them its requirement they show proof of current insurance.

The Department of Financial Services, meanwhile, is still collecting complaints against Wanless. Homeowners who suspect they have an invalid policy are urged to call the consumer complaint division toll free at (877) 693-5236, or directly at (850) 413-3089. Complaints also may be filed online, at https:// SendMail.aspx.

The agency asked consumers to be prepared to provide documentation, including copies of the front and back of any payment checks they wrote.