When you have a question about insurance, you can go straight to a Google search. But with thousands of results, the right answer may be buried among wrong information and bad advice.
You can call your insurance company or ask your favorite uncle, but there is another resource you may not have thought of, and it’s one you, as a taxpayer, help to fund. It’s your state’s department of insurance, and it has a website you may want to bookmark.
What is a department of insurance?
Insurance is regulated at the state level, so each state, as well as the District of Columbia, has its own insurance department suited to help people like you. Each department is tasked with one overarching duty: regulating insurance for the protection of consumers. To that end, they serve several roles: licensing insurance companies and agents, regulating insurance policies and rates, reviewing insurance company practices, and serving consumers through education and complaint resolution.
Despite many similarities, how each state chooses to fill these roles varies widely. For example, all state insurance departments have websites, but the offerings and services on these sites can be vastly different.
A recent analysisby NerdWallet ranked these websites based on just how helpful they are to consumers and found the average department of insurance scored just 60% on metrics such as the sharing of premium comparison tools, complaint data, consumer education and consumer assistance.
For full study results and to see how your state’s insurance department website performed, click here.
What this NerdWallet study means for you: You could live in a state with a robust insurance department website. If so, you’ll likely find the tools needed to answer many of your insurance questions and more. However, if your state’s website is lacking, you can phone or email the department for answers. In either case, your state’s department of insurance should be able to help you with the following things.
What can an insurance department help with?Understanding your insurance
If you have a question about your policy or a claim, or you don’t understand the basics of auto, home, health or life insurance, your insurance department should be able to help. Many have consumer help lines set up specifically for this reason. And most have consumer education resources on their websites including insurance buyers guides, a glossary of insurance terms and frequently asked questions.
Choosing an insurance company
In addition to possibly having an insurance buyers guide or at least tips on choosing the right insurance, some insurance departments also display rate comparisons and share complaint data.
These rate comparison tools are not the same as getting a quote — many factors go into pricing an insurance policy. But they can help identify carriers that tend to offer lower prices in your ZIP code. Also, many of these agencies share insurance company complaint data. This means you can compare how many complaints each insurance company has and use them as one factor in choosing a carrier.
Problems with your insurance company
State departments of insurance are responsible for investigating complaints against insurers, and most allow you to file those complaints online. The complaint could be against an insurance company, an agency or an individual agent. Common complaints include: unfair claims denials, delays in claim handling, a refusal of insurance, excessive fees or charges, unfair settlement offers, increased premiums without notification, unfair policy cancellation and allegations of fraud.
Checking the status of an agent or insurance company in your state
All states offer a license lookup tool on their website. This means you can type in an insurance agent or company’s name and check the status of their license. In many cases, you’ll also be able to see if the agent or company had any enforcement actions taken against them.
If you can’t find the answer you need
If your insurance department’s website lacks the tool or information you’re after, call it. In many cases, the person on the other end is equipped to answer your questions. If not, he or she can direct you to someone qualified.
As with any customer service, you can escalate your request or call if you don’t think you’re getting the response you’re entitled to. And because your tax dollars help fund this department, you should feel empowered to ask for any services it’s lacking.
Insurance departments are lobbied by insurance companies but don’t receive the same sort of pressure from consumers, saysRobert Hunter, director of insurance at the Consumer Federation of America. “Consumers should be calling on their states to be excellent and holding them to the best standards,” Hunter says.
So don’t be afraid to make reasonable but firm requests of your state’s department of insurance.
How to contact your state insurance departmentDepartment namePhone numberAlabama Department of Insurance334-269-3550Alaska Division of Insurance800-INSURAK
907-465-2515Arizona Department of Insurance800-325-2548
602-364-2499Arkansas Insurance Department800-852-5494
501-371-2640California Department of Insurance800-927-4357Colorado Division of Insurance800-930-3745
303-894-7499Connecticut Insurance Department800-203-3447
860-297-3900Delaware Department of Insurance800-282-8611
302-674-7310District of Columbia Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking202-727-8000Florida Department of Financial Services877-693-5236
850-413-3089Georgia Office of Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner800-656-2298
404-656-2070Hawaii Insurance Division808-586-2790Idaho Department of Insurance800-721-3272
208-334-4250Illinois Department of Insurance877-527-9431
217-782-4515Indiana Department of Insurance800-622-4461
317-232-2426Iowa Insurance Division877-955-1212
515-281-5705Kansas Insurance Department800-432-2484
785-296-3071Kentucky Department of Insurance502-564-3630Louisiana Department of Insurance800-259-5300
225-342-5900Maine Bureau of Insurance800-300-5000
207-624-8475Maryland Insurance Administration800-492-6116
410-468-2000Massachusetts Division of Insurance877-563-4467
617-521-7794Michigan Department of Insurance and Financial Services877-999-6442
517-284-8800Minnesota Department of Commerce800-657-3602
651-539-1600Mississippi Insurance Department800-562-2957
601-359-3569Missouri Department of Insurance800-726-7390
573-751-4126Montana Commissioner of Securities and Insurance800-332-6148
406-444-2040Nebraska Department of Insurance877-564-7323
402-471-2201Nevada Division of Insurance702-486-4009New Hampshire Insurance Department800-852-3416
603-271-2261New Jersey Division of Insurance800-446-7467
609-292-7272New Mexico Superintendent of Insurance855-427-5674New York Department of Financial Services800-342-3736
212-480-6400North Carolina Department of Insurance855-408-1212North Dakota Insurance Department800-247-0560
701-328-2440Ohio Department of Insurance800-686-1526
614-644-2658Oklahoma Insurance Department800-522-0071
405-521-2828Oregon Division of Financial Regulation866-814-9710
503-378-4140Pennsylvania Insurance Department877-881-6388
Rhode Island Division of Insurance Regulation401-462-9520South Carolina Department of Insurance800-768-3467
803-737-6180South Dakota Division of Insurance605-773-3563Tennessee Department of Commerce & Insurance800-342-4029
615-741-2218Texas Department of Insurance800-252-3439Utah Insurance Department800-439-3805
801-538-3800Vermont Department of Financial Regulation800-964-1784
802-828-3302Virginia Bureau of Insurance804-371-9741Washington Office of the Insurance Commissioner800-562-6900
360-725-7080West Virginia Offices of the Insurance Commissioner888-879-9842Wisconsin Office of the Commissioner of Insurance800-236-8517
608-266-3585Wyoming Department of Insurance800-438-5768
The article How Your State Department of Insurance Can Help You originally appeared on NerdWallet.