In a twist, Florida levels new charges against Palm Coast Travel

Only a few weeks ago, Palm Coast Travel, one of three large travel agencies the state of Florida last year alleged had sold unlicensed insurance, seemed to have everything going for it.

The state’s investigation into its activities appeared to have hit a dead end. The company, which runs the site Smartcruiser.com, had sued one of its customers and me in an effort to silence its critics. And it was issuing press releases at a regular clip, touting its Better Business Bureau rating and obsession with customer service.

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But late last week, in an unexpected twist, Florida regulators filed an amended notice of intent to issue a cease and desist order (PDF) with more detailed charges against Lake Worth, Fla.-based Smolinski and Associates, Inc., which, in addition to doing business as Palm Coast Travel and Smartcruiser.com, also operates under the names Smart Travel Group, Smart Cruiser Holdings and Tripsmart. (Update: A hearing has been set for April 8. Here’s the docket.) Any way you read the latest claims, it’s clear that Florida’s Department of Financial Services has no intention of letting this case fade away. (Here’s the first notice, for comparison purposes.)

Here are the general allegations, as outlined in the document:

Respondents do not currently hold a license issued under or pursuant to Chapters 624-632, 634, 635, 636, 641, 642, 648 and 651, Florida Statutes (collectively referred to as “Florida Insurance Code”), or hold an appointment under the Florida Insurance Code.

At all times pertinent to the dates and occurrences referenced herein, respondents did not hold a license issued under or pursuant to the Florida Insurance Code, or hold an appointment under the Florida Insurance Code.

By way of explanation, the reason they’re referring to “respondents” is that Smolinski and Associates has a variety of companies and subsidiaries, which the document takes some time to describe. Anyway, on with the charges:

Section 624.401, Florida Statutes, provides that no person shall act as an insurer, and no insurer or its agents, attorneys, subscribers, or representatives shall directly or indirectly transact insurance in this state except as authorized by a subsisting Certificate of Authority issued to the insurer by the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation (“OIR”).

Section 624.09, Florida Statutes, provides that an “unauthorized insurer” is an insurer which is not duly authorized by a subsisting certificate of authority issued by OIR to transact insurance in this state.

Section 624.1 0, Florida Statues, provides that transacting insurance includes any of the following, in addition to other applicable provisions of this code: 1) solicitation or inducement; 2) preliminary negotiations; 3) effectuation of a contract of insurance; and 4) transaction of matters subsequent to effectuation of a contract of insurance and arising out of it.

Pursuant to Chapter 626, Florida Statutes, the Florida Department of Financial Services (“Department”) has jurisdiction over respondents, and the business of travel insurance.

In a bulletin (PDF) sent to all registered sellers of travel issued late last year, the Department of Financial Services explained the penalties for selling unlicensed insurance:

The ramifications of soliciting or selling insurance on behalf of any unauthorized insurance company can be severe.

It is classified as a third-degree felony and, under Florida law, if an unauthorized insurance company fails to pay claims, any person who sold the unauthorized coverage can be held responsible for unpaid claims.

Florida Department of Financial Services’ investigations have led to initiating administrative actions against insurance agents and agencies, shutting down unauthorized insurance companies, and filing criminal charges against operators or marketers of unauthorized insurance companies.

All of which brings us to the alleged victims. In the first notice, regulators named only one person: Peter Lay (who is being sued by the company). He is said to have lost $3,900 after buying a policy offered through Prime Travel Protection.

He is joined now by Nancy Swinney, who is alleged to have been sold an Access America insurance policy with her cruise. “However, subsequent to [her] scheduled trip, her travel insurance was transferred from Access America to Prime Travel Protection, Inc.,” the state charges, adding,

Prior to N.S.’s trip, N.S. had to cancel the trip. N.S. filed a claim with Smart Travel Insurance and/or Prime Travel Protection, Inc. Smart Travel Insurance and/or Prime Travel Protection, Inc. neither denied nor paid N.S.’ claim.

A third alleged victim, Chris Lockard, is said to have lost $2,600 in relation to a canceled trip.

The matter is awaiting a scheduling order by an Administrative Law Judge. If the company is found to have violated Florida law, it faces fines and the imposition of a cease and desist order.

But there is more — much more — to this story. I’ve made a public records request for everything related to Florida’s case against Palm Coast Travel and its related companies, and will begin to release them on this site as they become available.

The process may take a while, but I promise, it’ll be worth the wait.

(Photo: merfam/Flickr Creative Commons)

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