How Your Credit Affects Your Insurance Bills

This post comes from partner site Insure.com.

Does having bad credit make you a bad driver or risky homeowner? No, but your insurance company probably sees a correlation.

Many home and car insurance companies use your credit information, filtered through a formula to create an “insurance risk score,” to determine how likely you are to file an insurance claim. Your premium bill could rise if you have a bad credit score, even if you haven’t filed a claim.

According to the Insurance Information Institute (III), insurance companies use these risk scores to help differentiate between lower and higher insurance risks and thus charge a premium equal to the risk they are assuming. Statistically, people who have a poor insurance score are more likely to file a claim, according to III.

Related story: Understanding, Organizing and Saving on Car Insurance

Inside insurance risk scoring

Insurance risk scores are similar to credit risk scores — used by lenders to determine whether or not to approve a loan or line of credit — because both look at your credit information, but the two are not the same thing, says Craig Watts, a spokesperson for Fair Isaac Corp. (FICO), whose insurance risk scores are used by roughly 300 insurers nationwide in calculating insurance quotes.

“Consumers are becoming more familiar with credit risk scoring, but insurance risk scoring is still fairly arcane,” says Watts.

While both insurance scores and credit scores look at the same five characteristics of a person’s credit report (see list at right), the data are weighted differently. This difference in weighting can swing 5 to 10 percent in each category.

“The biggest difference is that insurance risk scores look for stability, but credit risk scores look for a reliable pattern,” says Watts. “Insurance scores are also more interested in how regularly you pay than in how much you already owe.”

Insurers use these insurance scores to try to identify consumers who are consistent and reliable, as well as those who show a pattern of demonstrating common sense with money. Insurers say these people are less likely to file a claim on an insurance policy — thus costing the insurance company less money.

“We’ve studied millions of records and have found that there is a clear and reliable correlation between credit history and your risk of insurance loss relative to other consumers,” says Watts.

According to the latest study by the Bureau of Business Research at the University of Texas, published in 2003, there’s a strong correlation between credit history and the filing of an auto insurance claim. The study matched credit scores with claim data and found that people with bad credit scores had claim losses 53 percent higher than the average.

Allstate Insurance Co. and State Farm, the nation’s two largest auto and home insurers, have also noted this correlation and have developed their own insurance risk-scoring systems that incorporate credit information.

Insurers say that using credit information allows them to price their products more fairly. The better your credit, the lower your premium.

“Study after study has shown that credit history can be correlated with the likelihood that someone will file a claim,” says Dick Luedke, a spokesperson for State Farm. “We don’t claim to have the definitive answer as to why there is a correlation, but we believe one exists.”

Luedke says that State Farm uses credit information in deciding whether or not to issue an insurance policy and points out that, in some cases, the use of credit information has allowed State Farm to cover people that wouldn’t ordinarily have qualified.

“That would be somebody that didn’t have good characteristics in their driving record or on previous claims but did have good credit characteristics,” Luedke says. “If we didn’t include that in the overall measurement of risk, we wouldn’t have insured that person.”

Related Story: The True Cost of Bad Credit

Correlations and explanations

The use of credit information to help set premiums and approve or deny coverage has its critics. Birny Birnbaum, executive director for the Center for Economic Justice, has testified before Congress on insurance credit scoring and outlined reasons it should be prohibited. He argues that credit-based insurance scores are arbitrary and unrelated to how well a consumer manages their finances and that scores penalize consumers due to the business decisions of lenders. He also says that 87 percent of family bankruptcies result from job loss, major medical bills and divorce.

“It is only in the cloistered world of insurance actuaries and executives that charging higher auto and homeowners insurance rates to someone who has suffered an economic or medical catastrophe is considered fair,” he says.

Birnbaum also believes that credit scoring discriminates against poor and minority consumers. He cites a Missouri Department of Insurance study from 2004 that found that credit scores for minorities were consistently lower than scores for non-minorities.

While some critics acknowledge that credit information — which has been used by some insurers for more than a decade — can be useful to insurance companies for avoiding insurance fraud-motivated arson and similar hazards, they place little faith in computer-modeled insurance scores and statistical relationships. They also attack insurance risk scores because insurance companies won’t divulge their methods for calculating insurance risk scores.

Alex M. Hageli, an expert on credit information issues at the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, says that computer models used to generate insurance scores from credit information represent a tremendous investment of time and money for insurers.

“Some companies have developed their own models and others use third-party vendors’ models. In either case, a lot of money has been poured into perfecting the model to allow companies to price better than their competitors, or in the case of competitors, to allow them to say their model is the best,” Hageli says. “If everyone has access to everyone’s algorithms, i.e. secret ingredients, then all that money is wasted.”

Robert Hunter, the director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and a former Texas Insurance Commissioner, finds this alarming.

“This is very disturbing — it’s like a black box,” he counters. “They haven’t verified that minorities, people with disabilities, and the poor aren’t discriminated against by these systems. Indeed, studies by Maryland and Texas seem to confirm that this is a problem.”

According to Watts, insurance risk-scoring models do not discriminate. “In the studies we’ve done, we looked specifically at the scoring of low- to moderate-income and high minority areas,” says Watts. “People in those areas score similarly to people from areas of higher income. We didn’t see a pattern of indirect discrimination.”

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