Florida’s campaign to stop unlicensed travel insurance appears to be at a crossroads. State regulators yesterday sent a two-count notice to Vacation Superstore Network/Best Price Cruises, with the by-now familiar charges: selling travel insurance without a required license, employing agents who didn’t have the necessary paperwork, and, of course, identifying customers who were affected by the alleged purchase of unlicensed insurance.
PALM COAST TRAVEL
I wanted to take a moment to say “thank you” for the support I’ve gotten from lawyers in the blogosphere after being hit with a frivolous defamation lawsuit from a Florida travel agency earlier this year.
We’ve filed a motion to dismiss the suit and there’s no question that the case will be thrown out of court with prejudice.
In the meantime, it has become clear to the experts that this case was filed with the sole purpose of silencing this blog — what’s called a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP), or a suit intended to censor, intimidate and silence someone by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism.
Florida regulators today filed a revised notice of intent to issue a cease and desist order against Legendary Journeys, a Sarasota, Fla., travel agency, as part of its investigation into Prime Travel Protection. It appears to be the state’s biggest action against a single company, with 17 counts and half a million dollars in outstanding claims, according to a government report. Here’s the order (PDF). Unlike some of the other agencies affected by this scandal, Legendary Journeys has been candid about its role and eager to face its critics. So I asked Al Ferguson, a vice president at Legendary Journeys, to answer a few questions.
Why do you think the state decided to revise its intent to issue a cease and desist today?
The intent is unclear. I think there is even conflicting opinion in Tallahassee on this.
We have complied on anything asked and submitted a mountain of paperwork to support everything that occurred. The revision is the same notice [we received a year ago] to not sell Prime Travel Protection policies. We stopped doing that six months before the first intent was issued.
It’s our turn.
Almost three months after filing a lawsuit against one of its customers and me, our lawyers have answered Palm Coast Travel’s charges in two separate motions for dismissal.
Looks like Palm Coast Travel, the Boca Raton, Fla., agency accused by the state of Florida of selling unauthorized travel insurance, while at the same time trying to sue one of its own customers and me into silence, has quietly negotiated a settlement with insurance regulators.
Under the agreement (PDF), which was signed today, Palm Coast Travel, which also does business online as Smartcruiser.com, has agreed to cease and desist selling unauthorized insurance and will pay a $2,500 fine as well as restitution to its customers affected by the purchase of an unauthorized insurance policy. It will be placed on 18 months’ probation and has agreed not to sell unauthorized insurance in the future.
The consent order is practically identical to a draft settlement agreement (PDF) that has been circulating between Palm Coast Travel and insurance regulators since last summer, and which I obtained after filing a public records request.
Florida regulators this morning cracked down on two more travel agencies as part of their expanding investigation into illegal travel insurance. It brings the total number of companies charged with selling fake travel insurance to seven since January. More enforcement actions are believed to be on the way.
Notices of intent to issue a cease and desist orders were filed against Atlantis International Limited, a St. Petersburg, Fla., travel agency, and Cruises R Us of Plantation, Fla., which also used the name Cruisequick.com.
Cruisequick is familiar to readers of this site. A few years ago, it allegedly sold another unauthorized travel policy to reader Don Filiault. His insurance company, Trip Assured, was later hit with a cease and desist order issued by several states, including California and Florida.
Looks like Palm Coast Travel has company. Florida regulators have filed charges against three more travel agencies as part of their expanding probe of unlicensed insurance offered through defunct Prime Travel Protection. (Two more agencies were added to the list at the end of today; see update at the end of this post.)
Ahoy Cruises of Jacksonville, Fla., JB Travel of Boynton Beach, Fla., and St. Lucie West Travel of Port St. Lucie, Fla., are accused by the state’s Department of Financial Services of violating several insurance-related statues — or, put differently, of selling fake travel insurance.
This is an important story, because bogus “trip protection” policies are known to have been sold to people across the country for years, potentially costing travelers millions of dollars in lost vacations.