Your Auto Insurer May be Playing Price Games with Your Premium

by Jean Chatzky, CNN Money

Pink Piggy Bank On Top Of A Pile Of One Dollar BillsThe Consumer Federation of America ruffled the feathers of auto insurers this week when it made a fuss about something called “price optimization.” You’ve never heard of it? Neither had I. According to J. Robert Hunter, former Texas Insurance Commissioner, now the CFA’s director of insurance, it’s a relatively new practice put in place by many large insurers to price policies on factors other than risk — specifically, how much consumers are willing to pay before they walk away.

“Companies take 1% of a certain class of people — elderly or young or people in a particular zip code — and raise the rates by different amounts,” he explains. “One percent or 2%. They’d observe how many people left at different levels and optimize their profit based upon how high they could go without losing people.” Hunter’s belief is that because certain populations are less likely to shop around than others, the practice could be discriminatory.

Robert Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute (III) and an industry spokesperson, cries foul. “Price optimization is a term made up by a [software] company that tries to sell a product [which does this sort of data analysis] to insurance companies,” he says. “The CFA is totally, utterly wrong and mistaken when they say insurers have abandoned risk-based pricing in favor of price optimization techniques. ”

But that doesn’t mean that they’re not looking to make a profit. “Insurers have always worked to try to embed techniques in their methodologies to insure that the rates they charge reflect risk and their own business needs,” he says. Like? “Rate of returns.”

Trouble is, consumers seem to be slowly forgetting this.

According to the J.D. Power And Associates 2013 Insurance Shopping Study, the percentage of consumers shopping around for a better deal on auto insurance is at a six-year low. Strangely, this is happening at the same time that a) the number of policy holders being hit with premium hikes is up sharply and b) the dollar amount of those increases spiked. According to another piece of Power research, the increases averaged $153 in 2013, up 35% from $113 a year ago.

Across the board, though, the amount we’re paying for each auto insurance policy has actually fallen. Let me say that again: The price of auto insurance today is just about where it was a decade ago. In 2004, according to the III, it was $842 per car per year. Last year, it was $829. The III’s estimate for this year is $846, which means we may actually nose ahead of where we were back then.

Clearly there are deals to be had. We’re just not looking for them. “I’m Mr. Consumer and I really don’t shop around,” acknowledges consumer advocate Edgar Dworsky, who runs the website “I think a lot of people just renew, renew, renew, and if they see the price went up, they might believe the whole industry is going up.” He’s right. J.D. Power’s research shows that only 9% of consumers who experienced rate increases under $50 switched insurers in 2013; that doubled to 18% when faced with rate hikes of between $51 and $100 and 32% of consumers jumped ship when the price rose more than $200.

Even if your insurer doesn’t raise your rate, you may be able to save considerably with just a little legwork. You don’t have to rely solely on the phone.

Insurance pricing is state-regulated. The website has a car insurance discounts tool that you can use to get a sense of what kind of breaks the large insurers in your state are offering.

And if you don’t? Well, you can take heart in the fact that even the pros can be lulled into complacency.

Which brings me back to price optimization. Two years ago, when Hunter first started researching the topic, he noticed he’d been with the same insurer for a while. And during that time his rate had risen by 25%. “I was being offered a renewal for my two cars for $600,” he says. “So I shopped, and I got an offer for $500.” He took that news back to his current insurer who said they’d be back in touch shortly. Their offer? $390.

Hunter’s reaction: “It’s terrific, but it’s not really right.”