Many companies reward their most loyal customers with incentives, discounts and freebies. But in car insurance, the opposite can actually happen. A driver can be punished with a higher premium just for being loyal to the company.
It's called price optimization, and it happens to lots of people all the time. A driver could have no history of accidents but all of a sudden their car insurance goes up.
Justin Mulholland is a financial adviser whose company manages money for people at the University of Michigan. He owns a Ford Focus, a Buick LeSabre and a Chevy Venture. He got a pretty good rate from the insurance company he chose. And for two years, all was well.
Then he received a notice that his premium was going up. The increase "was pretty substantial — it was about $100 a year," Mulholland says.
A guy who helps people manage their money most likely pays attention to his own as well.
"I got on the phone with another friend of mine who sells insurance and he got me a deal with Cincinnati Insurance that brought it down to what it was before, and it's stayed there ever since," Mulholland says.
Mulholland's lack of loyalty in the face of a premium increase means he's less likely to be snared by the insurance practice called price optimization.
"Well, it's really profit maximization," says Bob Hunter, with the Consumer Federation of America. He says insurance companies can buy software that compiles an astonishing amount of data on everyone who buys almost anything, anywhere.
"They have all the information on what you buy at your grocery store. How many apples, how many beers, how many steaks," he says. "They have all the information on your house. They have incredible amounts of information on are you staying with Direct TV when Verizon is cheaper."
A sophisticated algorithm crunches that data and spits out an index showing how sensitive a customer is to price increases. Only the insurance company knows the index. Clients may see a loyalty discount on their premiums but Hunter says it may not be what it seems.
"They'll give you a discount for loyalty," Hunter says. "But, they'll give you a 10 percent discount after they've raised your rate 25 percent."
This can mean as much as a 30 percent rate difference between two drivers with the same risks. Only one's a shopper and one's not.
Rich Piazza, chief actuary for the Louisiana Department of Insurance, says this it's pretty complicated.
"As regulators, we're not always on the cutting edge of these changes in modeling and ratemaking practices, so we have to catch up sometimes," he says.
But unlike Hunter, Piazza's not convinced the practice is widespread. And he's not yet sure that it's wrong. He says insurance companies have many legitimate reasons to raise rates or charge a customer more than the next person. The company's costs go up. Every driver is different, and poses different risks.
"Insurance pricing rating is discriminatory," Piazza says. "It always has been."
But is it fair to discriminate based on a quality totally unrelated to risk? Maryland, Ohio and California say it isn't and have explicitly banned price optimization.
So far only Allstate has disclosed that it uses the price optimization tool. In a statement, the American Insurance Association said "the auto insurance market remains very competitive and consumers have numerous options available to them."
Hunter says even if all people do is suspect they're being price optimized they can still fight back.
"Shopping around will foil price optimization because if you shop around, the insurance company's going say, 'This guy's gonna leave if I raise the price, so let's hold it down.' "