The Watchdog: 5 tips to gain consumer power with insurance

Frustrated that Texas insurance companies always seem to have the upper hand? Me, too. In recent months, I switched insurance companies for coverage of my car, my house, my health and my life.

My insurance shopping experience can be summed up by a famous line from Socrates, one of the original watchdogs: “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.”

Not being an expert on products or services you are about to buy is OK. The idea is to learn as much as possible before making a decision.

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation won a 2013 writing award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists

As readers of The Dallas Morning News Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, five years ago, I launched a consumer rights movement called Watchdog Nation. I show how easy it is to protect yourself before making a decision — if you know how to do it.

But if you make a bad decision when hiring a company or buying a product, it’s a lot easier than most people realize to fight back and win.

In that spirit, I want to share five Watchdog Nation recommendations designed to gain consumer power when dealing with insurance in Texas.

1. Seek help from state regulators. Say an insurance company refuses to pay what a policyholder believes she is entitled to. Or perhaps the company is unresponsive to her concerns. File an official complaint with the Texas Department of Insurance. A state insurance specialist will contact the company and request an explanation. Sometimes, the company reverses its decision.

In the past year, Texas regulators received 20,000 complaints. Of those, about 3,000 complainants celebrated when $24.7 million was returned to them in settlement claims that originally were rejected.

One of those who complained is Jane Heinz of Farmers Branch. She booked a cruise departing from Germany, but at the last moment the cruise was canceled because of flooding. Even though she bought trip insurance, the insurance company reimbursed her only for the cost of the lost cruise, not her transportation costs to and from Germany.

Heinz wanted to fight but didn’t know how. Following my suggestion, she filed a complaint. Texas regulators contacted the company.

The other day I heard the results: “They are going to pay our claim for $1,753,” she said.

Bam! Another victory.

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2. Visit the website. This is one of Texas’ best-kept secrets. State insurance officials manage this website to help Texans shop for auto, commercial and residential property insurance. It’s free.

Compare the policies of all companies licensed to sell in Texas. See what they cover and what they don’t. Verify the record of an insurance agent. Check out a company’s status. All that’s possible on this easy-to-navigate website.

3. Hire a public adjuster. Here’s something I wish I had known when I fought my homeowners insurance company over a leak in my laundry room floor. When the insurance company’s adjuster, citing the Texas Almanac, blamed shifting soil in North Texas for my leak, I knew that was an easy out for him. I bellyached, but I didn’t know how to fight back.

I should have hired a public adjuster. This is someone who works on behalf of a residential or commercial property owner to negotiate with an insurance company for a better settlement on a claim. They study the policy, do research and argue the case.

There aren’t many in Texas, perhaps about 600 active adjusters. Their usual fee is 10 percent of a settlement claim. Texas requires that a public adjuster be licensed. One way to find them is through the Texas Association of Public Insurance Adjusters,

4. Don’t ask questions about your auto insurance. Last month, I told you about a new state law that prohibits companies from taking a policyholder’s questions about a potential claim and using that information to raise rates, premiums or deductibles for that customer. Customers get penalized even if they don’t make a claim.

Now I understand that this only pertains to homeowners insurance, not auto insurance. Credit goes to journalist John Sepulvado of for showing me this.

This means you shouldn’t ask questions about your auto policy. Even if you don’t file a claim, your rates could go up. Ask all you want about homeowners insurance because the new law protects that.

5. Talk to a lawyer. Mistreated? Underpaid in your settlement offer? When all else fails and you know you’re getting a bum deal, find a local Perry Mason.

Most insurance settlements begin with a lowball offer, and too many people take that initial offer, says Alex Winslow of Texas Watch, which eyeballs the insurance industry in Austin. “There’s a documented strategy on the part of some insurance companies to deny, delay, underpay legitimate claims. They hope they’re going to wear you down and you’ll go away,” he says.

“And if they’re doing that and treating you unfairly, you have some legal recourse. There are real penalties that insurance companies face if they’re doing that.”

One way to find a lawyer is through the National Association of Consumer Advocates,

Texas Department of Insurance consumer help line: 1-800-252-3439

Shop for insurance:

Find a public adjuster:

Look for a lawyer:

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation won a 2013 writing award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists

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Are you tired of fighting the bank, the credit card company, the electric company and the phone company? They can be worse than scammers the way they treat customers. A popular book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, shows you how to fight back — and win! The book is available at as a hardcover, CD audio book, e-book and hey, what else do you need? The author is The Watchdog columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Visit our store. Now revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber