By Albert B. Crenshaw
Sunday, March 26, 2006
Ever wonder how your auto insurer decides what to charge you for coverage, or even whether to offer you a policy at all?
Many people do, especially when they open up their annual or semiannual premium statement and see the amount they owe.
But insurers' risk assessments and pricing strategies are among the industry's most closely guarded secrets. While the companies are typically required to disclose their rates -- and the rating manuals used to set them -- to regulators, who sometimes make them public, the more workaday guidelines their agents and salespeople use are rarely visible to the public and sometimes not even to regulators.
Thus the recent discovery among regulatory filings in New Jersey of an internal guide used by Geico Corp. to help its salespeople decide whether to offer insurance to an applicant -- and if so which of the four Geico subsidiaries should provide the coverage -- provides an intriguing peek into one insurer's ways of sorting its customers.
Geico's subsidiaries all have similar names -- Government Employees Insurance Co., which is where Geico comes from; Geico General Insurance Co.; Geico Indemnity Co. and Geico Casualty Co. -- so customers are not always aware of which one is providing their policy.
But the company a customer is assigned to can mean hundreds, occasionally thousands, of dollars' difference in the premium that will be asked. This is because the first two on that list cover "preferred" risks -- motorists the company figures will be the safest drivers -- and charge lower premiums, while the other two handle drivers who look riskier and charge them more accordingly.
The guide emphasizes that it contains "criteria for placement among our four companies," and that these criteria "are just guides and not rules."
The guide looks at an applicant from three perspectives: driving record, personal characteristics and the vehicles to be insured. It appears to seek information beyond a basic application and does not address many standard questions such as miles driven, type of car and gender of driver.
Driving record is mostly what you might expect -- accidents, tickets and other violations, and license suspensions and revocations. But there are some nuances: Recent accidents are considered less favorable than those more than a year old; for families or other applicants with more than one driver, the guide says, "if there is more than one accident, view the risk more favorably if the accidents are spread among the drivers, rather than one driver having multiple accidents."
Interestingly, "multiple not at fault accidents are considered an unfavorable factor." On the other hand, "accidents caused by defective Bridgestone/Firestone tires that were involved in product recalls are not to be considered for underwriting or rating purposes."
Likewise, "multiple theft/vandalism incidents are considered unfavorable," and recent ones more so than old ones.
Also, "risks with more than one very serious conviction (drink/drugs, hit and run, racing, felony, vehicular manslaughter/assault) are not written."
Perhaps most interesting in the guide is the section on the applicant personally.
Age is very important. The company usually won't write a policy if the only or oldest driver is under 18. And "the most favorable risk is one where the oldest driver on the policy is less than 70 years old."
Marital status and family arrangements are also considered. "One driver that is single, two drivers that are married, and three drivers that include a married couple are most favorable. Other combinations are considered less favorable."
Geico also appears to frown on drivers who frequently shop for insurance. "Longer tenure with current insurer is more favorable that shorter tenure (less than five years)." But if you insist on shopping, it prefers drivers who do so "in advance of his or her insurance policy's expiration date. Also favorable are applicants that were previously covered under their parents' policy."
Other questions, which have stirred controversy, focus on social and economic status -- the higher the better.
The guide divides applicants into half a dozen or so "groups" based on occupation and education. "The most favorable occupations" are those in the top two groups plus military personnel above pay grade E-6 (Army staff sergeant) and graduate students.
Group 1, "occupations that have exhibited superior loss experience in the past," generally requires a bachelor's degree or higher, such as accountants, architects, lawyers, teachers, and "professional Federal employees in an administrative or technical position." Behind them in Group 2 are physicians, executive secretaries, some technical fields and others.
Group 3 covers white-collar jobs requiring at least a high school diploma and that "involve problem solving and/or decision making and the use of judgement." Below them in Group 4 are occupations that usually require a high school diploma, such as technicians, office machine operators, "high skilled artisans" ("married artisans residing with employed spouses" rate Group 3) and "blue collar, foremen, journeymen and nurses."
Group 5 includes "minimally skilled clerks, assistants and postal clerks" along with "unskilled and semiskilled blue and gray collar workers," gray collar generally referring to service workers, such as waiters and security guards.
In addition to these classes, indications that the applicant has lots of assets seem to be a plus. Applicants seeking bodily injury liability limits of $300,000 per person and per accident -- known as "300/300" -- or higher "are considered most favorable and applicants with lower limits (less than 50/100) are least favorable."
For vehicles, "in general more is better. Three or more vehicles is most preferred."
But having said that, the guide adds that it also wants the right combination of cars and drivers. The most favorable combination, the guide says, "is where the number of drivers is the same as the number of vehicles. Less favorable are policies with one driver and multiple vehicles and policies with more drivers than vehicles, except policies with only two drivers and one vehicle."
The guide, which includes many more provisions, indirectly highlights the value of shopping around, since other companies likely do their evaluations differently. For example, while Geico's guide suggests that it sees blue-collar workers as higher risks, Allstate says it gives discounts to carpenters, plumbers and various repair people.
Of course, you don't know for sure which carrier is cheaper without getting a quote, but in the days of the Internet, that's easy. And with what insurance costs today, it's clearly worth the effort.
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Um, about that beach house: Insurance risk modeler Risk Management Solutions says it figures the chances of category 3 to 5 hurricanes making landfall in the United States each year has risen 30 percent for the next five years, largely driven by higher surface water temperatures at sea. That increases projected insurance losses by 40 percent on average across the Gulf Coast, Florida and the Southeast, and by 25 to 30 percent in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast coastal regions, compared with projections based on long-term (1900-2005) historical average hurricane frequencies.
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The IRS is looking for a few good taxpayers. The agency is inviting individuals to apply to be members of the Taxpayer Advocacy Panel, whose mission is to listen to taxpayers, identify issues and make recommendations for improving IRS service.
Applications are available online at http://www.improveirs.org/ or by calling 888-912-1227. You can apply online or download the form and mail it to:
Milwaukee TAP Office, Stop 1006MIL, 310 West Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee, Wis. 53203-2221. The deadline for applying is April 28.