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Thousands of Americans are learning a sad insurance secret the hard way, when there’s a disaster, insurance companies homeowners count on to protect them from financial ruin routinely pay less in insurance claims than what the insurance policies promise.

Bloomberg News has reported that in the last 12 years, insurance company net income has soared, recording record profits, while paying less to victims of catastrophes who have helped the the insurance companies make those profits.

Property-casualty insurers, which cover damage to homes and cars, reported their highest-ever profit of $73 billion last year, up 49 percent from $49 billion in 2005, according to Highline Data LLC, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based firm that compiles insurance industry data.

Insurers often pay 30-60 percent of the cost of rebuilding a damaged home — even when carriers assure homeowners they’re fully covered, thousands of complaints with state insurance departments and civil court cases show.

The 60 million U.S. homeowners who pay more than $50 billion a year in insurance premiums are often disappointed when they discover insurers won’t pay the full cost of rebuilding their damaged or destroyed homes.

Property insurers systematically deny and reduce their policyholders’ claims, according to court records in California, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi, New Hampshire and Tennessee.

It is not uncommon for insurance companies to refuse to pay market prices for homes and replacement contents. Computer programs are used to reduce claims payments, policies are changed with no clear explanation, and sometimes they ask their adjusters to lie to customers.

“It’s despicable not to make good-faith offers to everybody,” says Robert Hunter, who was Texas insurance commissioner from 1993 to 1995 and is now insurance director at the Washington-based Consumer Federation of America.

“Money managers have taken over this whole industry,” Hunter says. “Their eyes are not on people who are hurt but on the bottom line for the next quarter.”

The industry’s drive for profit has overwhelmed its obligation to policyholders, says California Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi, a Democrat. As California’s insurance commissioner from 2002 to 2006, Garamendi imposed $18.4 million in fines against carriers for mistreating customers.

“There’s a fundamental economic conflict between the customer and the company,” he says. “That is, the company doesn’t want to pay. The first commandment of insurance is, ‘Thou shalt pay as little and as late as possible.’ “

We have seen it again and again in our cases. People with legitimate claims call us to see if the “offer” they received from the insurance company after an accident is a fair one. More often than not, it at least four or five times less than what the case is reasonably worth.

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