Auto insurers don't play fair with customers, study finds

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The Consumer Federation of America blasted insurance companies that use education and occupation to set rates for auto coverage, calling it an "unfair and discriminatory" way to price their policies.

Based on its analysis of the country's top 10 insurance companies, CFA found price quotes that were as much as 40 percent higher for drivers with less education and lower-job status.

"Lower - and moderate-income people should not be required to pay more, based on factors like education and occupation that have nothing at all to do with driving risk," said J. Robert Hunter, CFA's director of insurance. "These higher premiums are an important reason why many low and moderate income Americans drive uninsured."

CFA went online to get price quotes for two hypothetical customers: a factory worker with a high school diploma and a plant supervisor with a college degree.

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Both were the same in every other way: a 30-year old single woman who rents in a moderate-income neighborhood, drives a 2003 Honda Civic, had no accidents or moving violations in the last 10 years and who went without insurance coverage for the past 15 days.

The price-shopping took place in May and June with attempts to get quotes from the 10 largest insurance companies for the minimum required liability coverage in 10 major urban areas: Atlanta, Louisville, Chicago, Houston, Denver, Phoenix, Oakland, Seattle, Baltimore and Hartford.

CFA found that five of the companies – American Family, Farmers, GEICO, Liberty Mutual and Progressive – apparently consider education and occupation when setting rates:

  • The GEICO quote for the factory worker with only a high school education was significantly higher than the plant supervisor with a college degree: 45 percent more per year in Seattle ($870 vs. $599), 40% percent more in Hartford ($1,299 vs. $926), 33 percent more in Oakland ($922 vs. $693), 23 percent more in Louisville ($2,200 vs. $1,791), 21 percent more in Chicago ($1,013 vs. $840), and 20 percent more in Baltimore ($1,971 vs. $1,647).
  • Progressive also quoted higher annual premiums for the factory worker: 33 percent more in Baltimore ($1,818 vs. $1,362), 14 percent more in Houston ($1,406 vs. $1,236), 9 percent more in Louisville ($2,390 vs. $2,185), 9 percent more in Denver ($995 vs. $911) and 8 percent more in Oakland ($736 vs. $684).
  • Liberty Mutual's website would not even provide a rate quote for a high school graduate in five cities – Atlanta, Louisville, Chicago, Denver, and Seattle – but it would give a quote for a college graduate.

"Auto insurers charge high premiums for minimal coverage to most working people, even those with perfect driving records," said Stephen Brobeck, CFA's executive director. "Many lower-income workers are faced with the choice of paying these high, and often unaffordable rates, or breaking the law by driving without insurance."

CFA estimates that one-quarter to one-third of drivers with household incomes of less than $36,000 are uninsured.

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GEICO would not comment on the report, referring us to the Insurance Information Institute, an industry trade group. Liberty Mutual did not respond to a request for comment. Progressive e-mailed a statement.

"We work to price each driver's policy as accurately as possible using multiple rating factors, which sometimes include non-driving factors that have been proven to be predictive of a person's likelihood of being involved in a crash," spokesman Jeff Sibel said.

The Insurance Information Institute posted a response to the CFA study on its website which included a statement from institute president Robert Hartwig:

"No matter their station in life, dozens of auto insurers are competing for the business of every driver who resides in the cities the CFA surveyed for its report. These market forces have created a favorable situation for the nation's drivers when considering what they've had to pay for other products and services essential to their daily lives."

The institute said drivers who believe their current auto insurer is not meeting their needs, or charging too high a price, should shop around.

"Changing underwriting and rating factors that have been shown to project an insurer's future claims payouts accurately will only distort prices and result in good drivers subsidizing riskier ones," Hartwig said in his statement.

The Consumer Federation of America believes insurance companies should only be allowed to consider factors that are clearly related to risk, such as moving violations, accidents and miles driven.

(Read more: 'Good drivers' often pay more for insurance, study finds)

At a news conference on Monday, CFA's Robert Hunter, a former Texas Insurance Commissioner, said education and occupation are used by some insurance companies to determine income and race.

"In effect, auto insurers are discriminating on the basis of income and race," he said. "The use of discriminatory factors used by insurers would not be tolerated if used by creditors," Hunter said. "Yet, one could argue that credit is the more necessary product because it is required of drivers in all states but New Hampshire."

CFA commended the companies that do not appear to use occupation and education for setting rates: Allstate, Nationwide, State Farm, Travelers, and USAA. And it called on state lawmakers and insurance regulators across the country to ban the use of these demographic factors for setting insurance prices.

"We need to end this obvious unfairness and discriminatory treatment," Brobeck said.

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—By CNBC contributor Herb Weisbaum. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @TheConsumerman or visit The ConsumerMan website.