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TAMPA, Fla. (WTSP) -- It's a consumer-friendly lawthat's getting costly for honest consumers.

The guaranteeof afree,zero-deductiblewindshield replacement in Florida helps keep drivers safebehind the wheel, but unscrupulous glasscompanies -- pushing unnecessaryreplacements to undamaged windshields -- are taking advantage of the law andpushing up rates for all policyholders.A recent report rankedFlorida No. 1 in the country for auto insurance fraud.

A two-year 10 News investigation revealedglass dealers and salesmen around Tampa Baysoliciting customers at car washes,gas stations, large parking lots, and even with robocalls. In many cases,undercover 10 News reporters and producers were approachedand told theirvirtually-unblemished windshields needed replacement.

UPDATE: Investigation gets State Senator to draftlegislation

And while most glass dealers proved to behonest during undercover shoots, industry experts say the "bad apples" aregrowing fast. With windshield replacements costing insurance companiesbetween$500-$1000 a piece, much of it profit to the glass company, questionable claimshave soaring 500 percent in recent years, according to industry estimates.

"It's not fair to the generalpublic, the policy holders, the agents, or the good companies in the industrythat are trying to make a living doing the right thing," said Shelton Radebaughwith well-known local glasscompany Lloyd's of Shelton.

10 News had a newSUV -- loadedwithcameras -- checked out by Radebaugh and Bob Paul, a claims representativewith State Farm's Special Investigative Unit. The windshield passed with flyingcolors.

And while many windshield salesmen didn'tbother suggesting a replacement on the new windshield, one tried to suggest asmall speck was a dangerous crack that needed replacement (watch the video above).

When 10 News took in an older SUV, onewith tiny windshield imperfections, but nothing either Paul or Radebaughconsidered damage or dangerous, another salesman told an undercover producer sheneeded a replacement and the "cracks" could be violating the law. If she hadcomprehensive insurance, she was told the replacement was free.

The episode echoes complaints that havebeen flowing into the state for years about unnecessary replacements pitched bysolicitors at public venues or even door-to-door. While few consumers complainabout receiving a free windshield, the common theme in the hundred-pluscomplaints reviewed by 10 News involve pushy or unsolicited salesmen.

The business has been so lucrative andcompetitive the airwaves and Internet are nowfilled with companiesofferingincentives to "buy back your old windshield." The 10 News Investigatorsfound Auto Glass America offering $100 in Restaurant.com gift cards, localcompanies offering $60 Visa cards, andCraig's List ads offering up to $100cash.

Many of theincentive-offering companiesdid not push unnecessaryreplacements on 10 News producers, like Naser Bayazidi's AA Auto Glass out ofBrandon, which offers a $50 VISA card for insurance claims.

"I just try to do (things) right,"Bayazidi told 10 News after he indicated to undercover producers they didn'tneed a replacement.

Radebaugh also offers what he calls a"thank you gift" to his customers, a box of steaks he buys atwholesale pricesinexpensively. But he says his company's long-standing incentive has beendwarfed recently bysome other companies' incentives.

WHAT WARRANTS A REPLACEMENT?

Paul and Radebaugh agree awindshield thatneeds replacing involves a "starbreak"-type of crack thatpenetratesthewindshield's outer layer. These type of cracks can expand easily.

And while they also saidmajor chips in front of thedriver could warrant replacement as well, little nicks or pits are common andpose little-to-no threat to drivers. These pits cannot expand and will nevercause the windshield to shatter.

"It would be an act of fraud,"said Radebaugh, "for me to say, 'Get your policy out and call it in'(forcommonwindshield nicks)."

But that's one of the leading causes ofwindshield repair fraud in Florida.

OTHER WINDSHIELD FRAUD

Paul says State Farm has received otherfraud reports that include:

  • Salesmen damaging windshields in car washes or driveways so they needed replacing.
  • Salesmen using high-pressure tactics -- often referred to as "bullying" -- to scare drivers into unnecessary replacements.
  • Glass companies using cheap glass on a replacement, but billing insurance for expensive, top-of-the-line glass.

Radebaugh adds that some companies aren'teven delivering their promised incentives, using bait-and-switch tactics to winbusiness.

But despite mountains of evidenceindicating fraud, arrests are few and far between. Most of the fraud referralsFlorida's CFO office receives are dropped, often because of lack ofevidence.

Because insurance companies seldom sendout adjusters to inspect glass claims, much of the process is on the honorsystem. And by the time the state investigates possible fraud, the questionableglass is long-gone. Often, the salesmen are too.

ADVICE FOR CONSUMERS

Insurance companies and Radabaugh agreeconsumers should ask their insurance company for a trusted glass company if theyhave any sort of damage they want replaced.

"If you get an unsolicited sales pitch fora new windshield, it's always a good idea to first make a call to your insurancecompany before you replace it," said Lynne McChristian with the industry-backedInsurance Information Institute. "Many insurers have procedures in place forclaims related to windshield repair and replacement, plus you'll be guaranteed aquality product and expert installation."

Read: National Insurance Crime Bureaubrochure on protecting yourself

But Chuck Isaly, owner of Auto GlassAmerica, tells 10 News customers have the right to go to anyone they want, andshould lean more on referrals from friends. Isaly maintains his company usesbetter glass than the insurance company's preferred vendors.

Either way, it's a good idea to find atrusted glass expert now, before the day comes when you need one in a pinch andhave fewer options.

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