THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Websites offer guidelines, but some have hidden purpose

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Robert Preer
Globe Correspondent / March 9, 2008

Consumers looking for auto insurance often start where most searches begin these days: Google.

But type the words "auto," "insurance," "rates," and "Massachusetts," and the Internet search engine returns a long and bewildering list of sponsored and nonsponsored sites, many of them promising to match consumers with the insurance policy just right for them. These sites typically don't charge a fee, and they ask basic questions about motorists and their vehicles.

However, they are not all the same. Many are national operations looking to identify potential customers, whose names and other information are sold to local insurance agents. Other sites are run by Massachusetts insurance agents, who analyze the information submitted by visitors, and - often in a matter of hours - offer policies built around consumers' data. And there is the Massachusetts Division of Insurance website (autoratecompare.doi.state.ma.us), which asks visitors six questions, then instantaneously delivers a list of insurance companies, the expected cost of the policy for each company, and a list of qualified agents.

"Because of the new environment and the managed competition, there are going to be a lot of different sites and different advertising," said Frank Mancini, the president of the Massachusetts Association of Insurance Agents.

Mancini cautions against relying too heavily on any website. He said under new Massachusetts regulations, insurers are competing by offering a range of options that are far too complex to be understood by a brief questionnaire. "There are just so many possible scenarios it would be impossible to come up with an accurate premium," he said.

Kimberly Haberlin, spokeswoman for the Division of Insurance, said the division's website is not intended to be the final answer for consumers. The site, launched last month, was built with the latest data that insurance companies filed with the agency. Site visitors do not have to provide contact information, only ZIP code, miles driven annually, years licensed, type of vehicle, driving record, and desired coverage.

"The division's website is designed to encourage consumers to begin shopping by showing them the wide range of potential prices and products that are now available to them," Haberlin said.

Meanwhile, some of the commercial sites appear as though they are government-run. For instance, Mark Vallucci, a Burlington insurance agent, started his site, massinsurancequotes.com, about five years ago on the same business model as the national sites. He said he switched recently to a hands-on approach: When a consumer visits the site, Vallucci himself analyzes the information and usually within an hour e-mails back a suggested policy.

"It's basically a one-stop place, where we do the shopping for you," Vallucci said.

And Kevin Johnson, owner of the Lynnfield agency Johnson and Rohan, has two websites, massquotes.com and massautoquote.com. Like Vallucci, Johnson takes the information submitted by visitors, analyzes it, and suggests a policy. The site also has details of the state's insurance law and other information about driving in Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Association of Insurance Agents has its own website, massauto.com, which has a listing of agents and information about insurance in Massachusetts. The site does not have an area where consumers can enter information about themselves and get suggested policies.

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