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Originally published Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 4:39 PM

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Guest columnist

Washington Legislature must ban the insurance industry's use of credit scoring

Washington Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler wants the state to ban the use of credit-scoring by insurance companies. People are finding insurance rates increased when they take advantage of no-interest offers — such as 90-days-same-as-cash deals — or used a store credit card to buy furniture.

Special to The Times

Most people are not surprised to see their insurance rates increase if they cause an accident, get a ticket or file a claim. What they don't expect is a higher bill based on how they use credit — for example, if they've been laid off and rely more on credit, or have canceled unused credit cards or lowered their limits.

For more than 10 years, the insurance industry has increasingly relied on your personal credit history to set your auto and homeowner's insurance rates and to decide whether they'll even offer you coverage. This is not just about whether you pay your bills on time. In fact, your credit information is now one of the biggest factors that insurers use to set your rates.

In today's economy, this extra hit from insurers is especially unfair. Your premium should be determined the way most people assume it is — by how you drive and how you treat your property.

Because of this inherent unfairness, I'm asking state lawmakers to ban the practice of "credit scoring." I think it's unjust and unfairly discriminatory. So do the thousands of consumers who've contacted my office in recent years to complain about credit scoring.

Eight years ago, at my request, the Legislature restricted how insurers could use such scores. Today, with unemployment at a record high and so many people struggling to keep food on the table, it's time to ban credit scoring outright.

This is not a popular proposal with insurers. They argue that credit scoring rewards consumers for responsible behavior. But what does losing your job or opting for no-interest financing on a piece of furniture or a car have to do with how you drive or maintain your home?

The ideal consumer, as the companies and their investors see it, is someone who never needs the insurance.

So get ready for the industry's scare tactics. They'll claim that banning credit scoring will increase premiums. I believe that market competition — and insurance is an extremely competitive business in Washington state — leads to competitive prices. Successful companies will find fair ways to reward responsible drivers with lower rates. After all, they want those people as customers.

Each insurer manipulates your credit information differently and arrives at its own secret score. As many people have discovered, credit information is not necessarily accurate. And getting inaccuracies corrected can be a nightmarish, monthslong process — if you succeed at all.

Insurers argue that banning credit scoring will lead to higher rates for most people and that they'll be subsidizing people who made poor choices. But that argument ignores the fact that very responsible choices are lowering people's scores.

I've heard from people who've had their insurance rates increased because they canceled a credit card or consolidated their debt to one card; people who bought a mattress opting for the deferred interest for a year, or those who took advantage of the 10 percent discount at a local department store by using their store card. I think most people would agree that these people made reasonable choices to save their families money. They should not be penalized with higher insurance premiums.

If you agree, please join me and contact your Washington-state legislators. Ask them to ban credit scoring by insurers.

It's about fairness. What does being laid off or canceling a credit card have to do with how you drive? Nothing. Senate Bill 6252, sponsored by state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, is scheduled for a hearing in Olympia Jan. 28.

Mike Kreidler, a former Congressman, is Washington state's insurance commissioner.

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