LANSING (LSJ.com) - Michigan officials and law enforcement authorities say they're cracking down on fraudulent auto insurers and Michigan drivers who purchase their policies.
But consumer advocates say the new initiative, announced Monday by Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, fails to address the underlying problem: exorbitant car insurance premiums caused by Michigan's mandatory no-fault system that requires drivers to purchase basic coverage that includes unlimited medical benefits. Lawmakers are expected to debate this fall on whether to reform the system and make it more affordable.
Meantime, Johnson said she's formed a new task force to address what she said is rampant insurance fraud - the extent of which she said was uncovered when her office began to receive digitized insurance reports for the first time last year.
An example: On July 31 of this year alone, more than 500 - or 16 percent - of the 3,400 insurance certificates collected at Secretary of State branches across Michigan were deemed invalid, Johnson said. The worst offenders were in Chippewa, Van Buren and Sanilac counties, where at least 46 percent of insurance certificates presented for verification in each county were fake.
Across Ingham, Eaton and Clinton counties that day, that figure was nearly 11 percent. Thirty-eight of Michigan's 83 counties reported no falsified certificates that day but branches were closed in four of them.
Johnson said "unsuspecting" Michigan drivers are being unwittingly scammed by criminals selling insurance out of the backs of trailers or through listings on Craigslist.
"We have people being ripped off," she said. "They think they're buying insurance and when they get in an accident, their world collapses."
However, Butch Hollowell, general counsel for the NAACP in Detroit, said it's "preposterous" to suggest Michigan consumers are that naive.
"They're really being duped by the industry, which is charging them rates far in excess of what they should be charged," said Hollowell, who was an insurance consumer advocate for the state during the last two years of Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm's administration.
"That measure (by Johnson) will do absolutely nothing to help solve the underlying issue, which is affordability," Hollowell said. "It will force more people off of insurance and create an even worse driving environment."
Johnson would not comment on whether the high costs of Michigan's no-fault system might be forcing drivers to look for less expensive, albeit fraudulent, coverage.
Johnson said insured drivers pay hundreds of millions each year - $220 million in 2012 alone - to cover the benefits of uninsured drivers who get in accidents.
"The honest people are getting bills that are higher and higher, and it's not fair to them," she said.
Drivers who present fake auto insurance can face felony criminal charges and county prosecutors in Michigan are also stepping up their efforts to combat fraud.
Earlier this month, Eaton County Prosecutor Doug Lloyd charged a Detroit-area man with six felonies related to selling false auto insurance.
The charges against Olayinka Sanusi, 62, of Eastpointe, include conducting a criminal enterprise, which carries a 20-year prison sentence by itself. Sanusi is scheduled to be in court Friday for a preliminary hearing.
Lansing State Journal