NU Online News Service, Feb. 11, 2004, 3:54 p.m. EST – How well do insurers safeguard the privacy of online customers?[@@]

The Customer Respect Group, Bellevue, Wash., has examined Web sites put up by 70 large carriers and concluded that more than one-third do a poor job of protecting customers’ privacy.

The consulting firm looked at property-casualty and life company sites and used a 10-point scale to rate them on characteristics such as simplicity, transparency and responsiveness.

The firm gave its top rating, 9.6, to Cincinnati Financial Corp., Fairfield, Ohio, and its lowest rating, 3, to Unitrin Inc., Chicago. The average score was 6.8.

This year’s results are comparable to the results published in 2003, but the top 2003 score was only 9.1, Customer Respect says.

The firm says 35% of insurers share data without getting permission from users. Only 63% of the firms respond to more than half of the online inquiries that they receive.

Unitrin President Don Southwell says the site that Customer Respect rated, http://www.unitrin.com, “is our Web site that we use for investor relations. It’s not intended to be a customer Web site. We have several others for customer use. This one isn’t.” The site links to sites for Unitrin’s auto, specialty and multiline companies and to a site for Kemper Auto and Home.

Roger Fairchild, president of Customer Respect, says the consultants at his firm are happy about the scores that some insurers achieved.

“But, frankly, we are concerned to note that so many of the nation’s largest insurance companies are sharing personal data without permission and that responsiveness to online inquiries remains, at best, spotty,” Fairchild says. “These firms need to strongly consider the connection between respectful Web sites and their ability to compete for new business and retain current customers.”

Some other survey findings:

- Surveyed carriers receive the best overall rating (7.9) for simplicity and the worst (5.8) for principles.

- 13% of the carriers did not respond to any online inquiries, but 63% responded to all inquiries.

- 93% of insurers have privacy policies on their sites that explain how customers’ personal information will be used.

- 69% of the insurers use cookies, but only 35% of those insurers mention that cookies can be disabled.