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Legal beagles growl at TransUnion/Experian/Equifax, State Farm, and Sunoco

Jonathan Takiff, Staff Writer

Updated: Wednesday, September 27, 2017, 6:37 AM

Class-action lawsuits sometimes reveal, unwittingly, hidden truths about corporate practices.

Class-action and “bad-faith” lawsuits are mixed blessings. When victorious, the plaintiff lawyers make lots of money, while the individual “class” participants often split up peanuts. At least the lawsuits throw a spotlight, sometimes unwittingly, on issues that affect many of us.

Credit-reporting blues. Security lapses at Equifax that have undone the privacy and financial safety of 143 million U.S. consumers have given us all upset stomachs. But Equifax isn’t the only credit rater that’s putting consumers’ standing at risk, charges the latest of 26 lawsuits filed against the “Big Three” U.S. consumer-reporting agencies.

While the newest pile-on by Philly-based Berger & Montague P.C. focuses just on Experian and TransUnion, the lawsuit repeats accusations also made against Equifax. The beef: The big consumer-reporting agencies often pass along “inaccurate or out-of-date” tax-lien information obtained from a “third party” without bothering to “check the records at the source.” Often, the reported “liens” have already been paid off.

Of course, a poor report lowers a consumer’s credit score and makes it more difficult to get a car loan or mortgage. At the very least, it raises the interest rate that the “bad-risk” applicant has to pay to borrow.

Making matters worse, a “bad-penny” reputation is hard to shake. The lawsuits allege that the credit-monitoring giants lack a “systemic, reasonable procedure” to update the status of a consumer’s credit report “whenever tax liens are paid, satisfied, or released.”

Insurance grate. Do you have two cars on one auto insurance policy with optional “stacked” coverage? Good for you! If one driver gets into an accident and someone sues you royally for whiplash, the insurance company can save your neck with the summed liability insurance coverage for both cars in the household. So, instead of each car’s $100,000 per person/$300,000 per incident coverage, you have both cars’ cumulative $200,000 per person/$600,000 per incident protection to negotiate a settlement.

But what happens if you then cut back to one-car coverage – as happened to Anthony Caputo after one of his two rides was stolen in 1998, actually the same year he’d signed up for a two-car policy with State Farm? Or as happened to me five years ago with Geico, after reverting to bachelor-household status?

You’ll continue to pay the optional uptick fee for stacked insurance unless you formally notify the insurance company on a special form that you no longer wish to pay extra for the now-useless stacked coverage.

In his lawsuit — recently sustained by Common Pleas Court Judge Frederica Massiah-Jackson, rejecting State Farm’s preliminary motion to dismiss — Caputo states that the insurer continued to charge him for stacked coverage for 15 years after he’d reported the theft and deleted the lost vehicle from his policy. His suit, filed by lawyer Jeffrey Zimmerman, alleges that the stacked-coverage information was “concealed” on the policy declaration pages issued at renewal time. And when Caputo finally became aware of the improper changes, in March 2016, and demanded restitution, State Farm reimbursed him only from the date his car was stolen up to October 2009.

How much money are we talking here? Not a lot. I called Geico to ask whether I was still paying for “stacked coverage.” Oops, I was – an extra $6 every six months. “It’s a Pennsylvania Insurance Commission regulation: The stacked coverage stays on your policy. So when you do get a second car, you’ll be automatically protected, it’s not an issue,“ my agent said. “You have to tell us in writing when you don’t want it anymore.”

That little line item. Not all Sunoco gas stations are created equal. Some are owned by the parent company; others are independently owned and operated. But the big difference, obvious only if you wield a calculator while pumping gas, is that the Sunoco Rewards Card discount is guaranteed to save you money only at company-owned stations. Some indie stations resist the temptation to shave 5 cents a gallon off the Sunoco Rewards Card bill. Or effectively give the discount to every customer through a lower advertised price posted on their pumps and signs.

Because this difference wasn’t spelled out in promotional materials, Florida resident Donald White sued the Pennsylvania gasoline retailer, alleging fraud.

Sunoco lawyers have argued that the awards-program contract is part of an overall joint agreement between plaintiff Donald White, card issuer CitiBank, and Sunoco that is subject to arbitration.

But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently ruled that the fine-print contract and its arbitration agreement was between only Citibank and White, leaving Sunoco vulnerable to all kinds of nickel (and dime) legal actions.

Jonathan Takiff, Staff Writer

Read full story: Legal beagles growl at TransUnion/Experian/Equifax, State Farm, and Sunoco