In the insurance business, "twisting" refers to an unethical and usually illegal practice in which an insurance agent uses false or misleading information to persuade consumers to drop their existing coverage and take out a new policy with a new company. Since agents typically earn commissions on the policies they sell, unscrupulous agents may turn to twisting to boost their own income at the expense of their clients.
The defining characteristic of twisting is the use of deception to sell a policy. There's nothing wrong with an insurance agent encouraging prospective clients to replace their current coverage with a policy from the company the agent represents -- provided that the new policy actually does a better job of meeting the client's needs. In twisting cases, however, it typically isn't in the client's best interest to take out a new policy. That's why the agent has to deceive the client by "twisting the truth," which is how the practice got its name.
Life insurance often presents opportunities for twisting. Suppose a person has a whole-life policy with an accrued cash value. An insurance agent tells this person that he can reduce his premiums by canceling that coverage and taking out a term policy -- but the agent doesn't mention that doing so may cause the client to forfeit the cash value or pay taxes on it, wiping out any savings from the premiums. Another example might be an agent encouraging a potential customer to replace her existing health coverage with a policy that's cheaper but that the agent knows won't cover her medical conditions, setting her up for a potential financial catastrophe down the road.
The National Association of Insurance Commissioners has produced a model law, called the "Unfair Trade Practices Act," which prohibits agents from misrepresenting any aspect of insurance policies, thus making twisting illegal. Most states have enacted this model law. Many states also have laws that specifically define twisting as a criminal offense. Even in the absence of such laws, twisting could be prosecuted under general fraud statutes.
In twisting, an agent tries to persuade a customer to switch from one company's coverage to another's. In a related practice, called "churning," an agent tries to get clients to replace their coverage with a new policy offered by the same company. As with twisting, agents' motivation for churning is to inflate their commissions. Another practice, called "sliding," involves charging the customer for additional insurance products that the customer either did not specifically authorize or was led to believe would come at no cost. Churning and sliding are also barred by the terms of the model Unfair Trade Practices Act.
Cam Merritt is a writer and editor specializing in business, personal finance and home design. He has contributed to USA Today, The Des Moines Register and Better Homes and Gardens"publications. Merritt has a journalism degree from Drake University and is pursuing an MBA from the University of Iowa.