Florida has a problem.

Performing background checks on tens of thousands of its insurance agents takes too long. The problem needs fixing.

The state can fingerprint potential agents, but the process is laborious. The FBI can take 90 to 180 days to return background information. "It becomes a matter of just getting in line and waiting," said Nina Banister, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Financial Services (FLDFS).

But with biometric technology, Banister said, the process can be reduced to a matter of days. "The quicker process just serves everybody better," she added.

Recently the FLDFS engaged L-1 Identity Solutions and its subsidiary Integrated Biometric Technology (IBT) to build an Automated Fingerprint-Based Applicant Processing System (AFAPS). The five-year, $22 million project should record the identities of more than 70,000 resident and nonresident insurance agents.

The contract award follows a one-year pilot project between L-1 Identity Solutions and the state. Through that project, the state agency used the biometric technology in five counties. The pilot showed that expediting background checks could ease the burden on an already busy agency.

"We have to do the review and screening of all agent applications," Banister explained. Each form of insurance -- life, health and annuities -- requires its own qualifications and professional criteria. "Then once they have a license, we ensure that they maintain the continuing education credentials that they are required to have by law," she said.

With all these screening steps to attend to, expedited background checks give examiners one less thing to worry about.

Biometric Breakthrough

Fingerprinting helps the state weed out potential frauds.

"This whole business is really to determine: Do we know who the person is who's providing the service? Is that person who they say they are?" said Doni Fordyce, executive vice president of corporate communications for L-1 Identity Solutions.

Such background checks take on special significance in Florida, with its high percentage of older residents vulnerable to fraud. Without solid identification, practically anyone could print up letterhead and start collecting premiums.

IBT uses hardware from its sister company Identix to collect fingerprints through an optical scanner. The data is then processed by the company's proprietary software and matched against criminal databases made available by government and law enforcement agencies.

The scanner system can read a fingerprint regardless of dirt, residue or other interferences. The program reads the fingerprint's minutia, such as splits, ridge patterns and other details. These points do not change over time and can be used as the basis for consistent identification, according to IBT.

Known as minutia-based fingerprint systems, such applications can get an accurate print in spite of cuts and scars. Likewise, such systems don't require a full print to make a match. Even a partial print may deliver sufficient basis for identification.

Fordyce calls this high-speed, high-volume fingerprinting a big leap forward from the largely unverified identity systems that have been the norm. "Most people just have a database of persons by name," she said, adding that these systems lack verifiable forms of identification. "They may have a profile of who that person is, but they are never really able to attach a credential to that person."

IBT already operates a similar program in 35 states, running background checks on commercial drivers who carry hazardous materials.

Banister said the FLDFS plans to open fingerprinting centers statewide to provide practical and convenient access for potential insurance agent applicants. It is worth the effort, she said, to head off potential problems before serious issues arise. "By weeding out applicants who may have a proclivity to take advantage of consumers, it reduces the number of investigations we may have to do on the back end."

L-1 Identity Solutions already operates 32

Adam Stone  |  Contributing Writer