Stateside Public Adjusters Under Investigation After Hurricane Maria Claims

On left, Puerto Rico Insurance Companies Association President Iraelia Pernas (Cybernews)

SAN JUAN — The Puerto Rico Insurance Commissioner’s Office (OSC by its Spanish initials) announced Wednesday that it has opened 11 investigations into possible illegal acts committed by several public adjuster firms in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which struck in September 2017.

Most of these probes involve stateside entities that came to the island after the catastrophic storm, attorney Alexander Adams, in representation of OSC, said during a hearing by the House Consumer, Banking and Insurance Affairs Committee, chaired by New Progressive Party (NPP) Rep. Yashira Lebrón Rodríguez.

Adams said that among the firms being investigated by his office are Scott M. Favre Public Adjuster LLC, as well as others from states such as Mississippi, Texas and Florida.

Puerto Rico Insurance Companies Association President Iraelia Pernas confirmed the investigations.

“Most of the post-Maria claims that are still being elucidated have not been settled due to a pattern of improper conduct by public adjusters,” Pernas said in her testimony.

“There is no doubt that in the face of Maria’s emergency, some public adjuster firms, many of which are not from Puerto Rico, came here, not to help the people, but to enrich themselves with the misfortune of our people. In total, OCS issued 98 special permits for Independent Emergency Adjuster to people who did not reside on the island. Of these, there are many that are investigations for bad business practices. That is something that we will not allow to happen now with the earthquake claims from January,” said NPP Rep. Maricarmen Mas Rodríguez, author of House Resolution 1094, which was introduced in 2018 and orders the committee to investigate the practices of public adjusters on the island.

Mas Rodríguez, who represents District 19 in Mayagüez and San Germán, asked Adams about pending claims involving offshore public adjusters under investigation, to which he responded that most involve state and municipal government facilities. He said Scott Favre obtained his first contract with the government only four days after incorporating the firm in Puerto Rico.

According to the commonwealth State Department Business Registry, the firm in question, based in Mississippi, was authorized to do business on the island on Nov. 14, 2017. On Nov. 18, the firm obtained a contract (No. 2018-000080) with the Government Employees Retirement Systems Administration.

“The Insurance Commissioner’s office told us that of the 293,000 claims related to Hurricane Maria damages, some 3,000 are still being litigated and that many of these are being litigated for public adjuster estimates that were irresponsible,” Lebrón Rodríguez said. “This is a practice that cannot be allowed to continue, especially now.”  

Both lawmakers said they will soon announce measures to establish stricter controls on public adjusters, including caps on commissions received by public adjusters and adding more teeth to rules for sanctioning these firms.




Marriott Opens Caribbean’s First Aloft Hotel in San Juan

SAN JUAN — Aloft Hotels, Marriott International’s brand for properties with an emphasis on a lively environment, on Wednesday inaugurated Aloft San Juan, the first Aloft hotel in the Caribbean.

“By mixing art, technology, and music, Aloft San Juan introduces a new social scene with a fresh approach that differentiates itself from the traditional hotel offering,” a release reads.

Aloft San Juan is part of the expansion of PRISA Group with Caribe Hospitality and managed by Marriott International. With 177 rooms, the property, located in the island capital’s Convention Center District, features a loft-inspired design and is near the Isla Grande Airport, Miramar, Condado and Old San Juan.

“We are changing Puerto Rico’s hospitality landscape as the only hotel located within San Juan’s premiere entertainment destination, El Distrito…,” said Toni Stoeckl, Aloft Hotels’ global brand leader and vice president of Distinctive Select Brands for Marriott. “With 135 hotels in the pipeline, we are proud of the global growth and demand of our design-driven Aloft brand.”

Aloft San Juan.jpg
Exterior of Aloft San Juan (Courtesy)

The new Aloft hotel features the brand’s W XYZ Bar, located next to the lobby offering cocktails and “light bites.” During the day, the bar serves as a space for “working and networking,” and at night becomes a live music venue hosting the brand’s Live At Aloft Hotel program for emerging artists to perform.

Guests can exercise at the 24/7 Re:charge fitness center or relax in the pool located on the third level of the hotel.

“San Juan is a vibrant destination, filled with exciting entertainment, rich history, and captivating art, all which ignite the self-expressing Aloft traveler to explore and create,” Christian Nieves, Aloft San Juan’s general manager, said in the release.

The property’s flexible event spaces were designed for large trade shows and company conferences, as were the open spaces and terraces overlooking the fountains of the Convention Center as an ideal environment for social events.

(Courtesy)

The hotel is one of the anchor properties of El Distrito and the first to open in the 50,000 square-foot entertainment district’s central plaza. The plaza will feature a “digital scenery system” composed of more than 14,000 square-feet of LED screens, including one of the largest horizontal screens in the United States, where content such as art, nightly fireworks, social media feeds and sports events are displayed.

Incorporating high-wire rigging, hologram effects and other cutting-edge features, the outdoor, roofed Plaza will be flanked by two outdoor bars and anchored by a center stage for public performances with daily programming.

“Aloft San Juan is one of the anchor properties of El Distrito and the first to open, thus highlighting the importance that El Distrito has for the Puerto Rican tourism industry. Its modern and avant-garde design, and its vibrant social environment, add variety to the local hotel offer, as it is designed to meet the new generation of travelers,” added Federico Stubbe Jr., president of PRISA Group and developer of Aloft San Juan and El Distrito. “Aloft will be the hotel for next generation travelers and locals looking for a fresh vibe, all integrated into the spirited environment that El Distrito will offer.”

Founded in 2008, there are now more than 160 Aloft hotels in over 25 countries and territories. They are part of Marriott International’s portfolio of more than 7,300 properties under 30 brands in 134 countries and territories. Marriott operates and franchises hotels and licenses vacation ownership resorts. The company offers Marriott Bonvoy, its travel program.




Puerto Rico Gov’t: Period for Quake-Affected Businesses to Request Disaster Aid Ends

DDEC Secretary Manuel A. Laboy Rivera visits Yauco (Courtesy)

SAN JUAN — Puerto Rico’s Economic Development and Commerce Department (DDEC by its Spanish initials) will disburse $2.5 million to 1,000 small businesses in the municipalities that are under the major disaster declaration following a series of recent earthquakes in the island’s southwestern region. DDEC Secretary Manuel A. Laboy Rivera made the announcement after the period to submit documents required for the assistance ended.
“The first 400 forms available for small businesses to apply for the $2,500 incentive were delivered in record time. Given the economic need for additional funds to reactivate commercial activity in these municipalities, the Board of the Industrial Development Company authorized an additional $1.5 million to serve another 600 small businesses. After collecting the required information from the business owners for several weeks, we conclude the first phase of receiving and validating documents. Our team is now carrying out the internal processes to disburse the obligated money,” Laboy Rivera explained.

The official added that the DDEC was identifying other aid to rescue the economy of the southwest and central area of ​​the island, which was affected by the earthquakes, “complying with the commitment of Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced.”




T-Mobile, Sprint to Finalize Merger

SAN JUAN — Wireless communications providers T-Mobile US Inc. and Sprint announced Tuesday that after receiving a favorable decision in federal court in New York the companies are taking final steps to complete their merger to create the New T-Mobile.

Washington-based T-Mobile US provides services through its subsidiaries and operates T-Mobile and Metro by T-Mobile, while no-contract brands such as Virgin Mobile USA, Boost Mobile and Assurance Wireless run on Sprint’s network.

“T-Mobile has redefined itself over the past decade as a maverick that has spurred the two largest players in its industry to make numerous pro-consumer changes,” the court stated. “The proposed merger would allow the merged company to continue T-Mobile’s undeniably successful business strategy for the foreseeable future.”

In a release, T-Mobile CEO John Legere said: “The broad and deep 5G network that only our combined companies will be able to bring to life is going to change wireless … and beyond. Look out Dumb and Dumber and Big Cable – we are coming for you … and you haven’t seen anything yet!”

The “long-awaited merger and all the goodness it will deliver” could be brought “to a close as early as April 1…,” said the company’s COO and president.

Sprint Executive Chairman Marcelo Claure added: “Today brings us a big step closer to creating a combined company that will provide nationwide 5G, lower costs, and a high-performing network that will invigorate competition to the benefit of all mobile wireless and in-home broadband consumers. With the support of federal regulators and now this Court, we will focus on quickly completing the few remaining necessary steps to close this transaction. I am proud of my Sprint team’s dedication, passion and resilience throughout the merger review process, and we are ready to make the vision of a New T-Mobile a reality.”

According to the company, the benefits of the New T-Mobile include:

  • The U.S.’s first “transformational nationwide” 5G network and services with “speeds up to 5x faster than current LTE in just a few years and reaching as much as 15x faster by 2024….”
  • “New T-Mobile’s plans to deploy a higher quality and more robust network for rural America and to prioritize more vulnerable urban populations will ensure that all Americans have a meaningful chance to thrive in the 5G economy.”
  • “New T-Mobile is committed to delivering the same or better rate plans at the same or better prices for three years – and that includes 5G. With 14X more total capacity in 2024 than standalone T-Mobile has today, the New T-Mobile’s 5G network will bring down the cost of delivering a gigabyte of data, providing enormous economic incentives for the New T-Mobile to lower prices. New T-Mobile will vigorously compete for consumers at all price points and all customers, including prepaid and Lifeline, will have access to the same amazing 5G network and services.”
  • New T-Mobile’s wireless in-home broadband service “will overcome the obstacles to extending traditional wireline access by blanketing high-capacity coverage over previously difficult to serve areas. It will deliver 100+ Mbps speeds for wireless broadband to 90% of the population and in-home service to over half the country’s households by 2024.”
  • In year one, New T-Mobile will have more than 3,500 additional full-time U.S. employees than the standalone companies would have had, and 11,000 more people by 2024. Additionally, plans to build more than 600 new retail locations and five new customer experience centers will create approximately 12,000 more jobs – many in small towns.”




Pep Boys’ Icahn Acquires Puerto Rico’s Tecnicentros Mundial

A Pep Boys Service Center in Puerto Rico. (Photo: Business Wire)
A Pep Boys Service Center in Puerto Rico (Courtesy)

SAN JUAN – Icahn Automotive, an Icahn Enterprises L.P. company, which owns and operates leading automotive aftermarket chain Pep Boys, has acquired Puerto Rico’s Tecnicentros Mundial, a six-location automotive service chain.

The Tecnicentros locations in Caguas, San Juan, Río Piedras, Campo Rico, Dorado and Ponce will be converted to Pep Boys branded service centers, and employees at those locations will join the Pep Boys team, according to a release issued Tuesday.

The acquisition will increase the number of Pep Boys locations on the island to 33, of which 30 locations will provide automotive service. No other terms were disclosed in the written announcement. The company will also acquire an existing warehouse facility.

“The acquisition of Tecnicentros Mundial provides us with a strong platform for additional growth in Puerto Rico and will enable us to meet the increased demand for automotive service from both individual and fleet customers,” said Brian Kaner, CEO-Service. “We welcome the Tecnicentros Mundial team to the Pep Boys family, and we are committed to continuing to help the island recover.”

“Similar to the contiguous United States, the demand for do it for me (DIFM) service in Puerto Rico is due to drivers keeping their cars longer, increased vehicle complexity, and growth in fleets,” the release reads.

“Tecnicentros Mundial is pleased to be joining Pep Boys, a company with a long and stable history in Puerto Rico,” added Tecnicentros VP Jacklin Tirado. “Our late founder, Efraín Tirado, built Tecnicentros Mundial into a company with a strong reputation that has been a pillar of our local communities for more than 30 years, and we are pleased with Pep Boys commitment to our employees, customers, and legacy.”

Pep Boys has had locations on the island for more than 25 years and employs more than 1,000 people.

“The acquisition is part of a multi-year strategic expansion plan that has added significantly to the Icahn Automotive portfolio and expanded the Pep Boys footprint as the overall market for automotive service continues to consolidate,” the company said.

Pep Boys provides tires; automotive maintenance and repair; parts and advice; commercial auto parts delivery; and fleet maintenance and repair. It operates more than 9,000 service bays in approximately 1,000 locations in 35 states and Puerto Rico.




Connect Assistance Bets on Puerto Rico, LatAm Markets

Continues to Grow in Puerto Rico, Panama, Costa Rica; Expects to Reach Fourth LatAm Country by Year’s End

Connect Assistance (CA), the Puerto Rican company specializing in roadside assistance services for cars, motorcycles and homes, continues to grow in both local and international markets and seeks to expand its footprint by establishing operations in a fourth country in Latin America by the end of 2020.

According to CA’s CEO, Antonio Ortiz, the company is the only Puerto Rican roadside assistance operation with a call center in Puerto Rico and with proprietary technology platforms patented by the federal government to provide much faster services, dispatch suppliers using traffic intelligence and the services the providers offer. The company currently has a presence in Panama and Costa Rica.

Regarding the future, Ortiz said, “the intention is to continue to invest and develop the team. It depends on the opportunities we find to expand to the next market. Our intention this year is to give ourselves the right opportunity to enter a fourth country” in Latin America. “For us to be able to support that development from Puerto Rico, we have to continue expanding the workforce. We are evaluating options and actively looking” for alternatives, the executive said.

“We launched Connect Assistance in November 2011 as a roadside assistance company with a team of eight people and we just turned eight [years old]. The company started developing…in Puerto Rico with the vision that through a local call center, technology and a user-experience approach, we could create an extraordinary solution for an ordinary problem that needed to be addressed,” Ortiz pointed out.

“After five years, we became the main provider of roadside assistance in Puerto Rico and decided to look outside for markets where we could leverage [our] technology and operational expertise focused on user experience to create a different product,” he added.

The company offers such roadside assistance services as towing, extraction, battery charging, tire change, locksmith and fuel supply for cars. For motorcycles, the company offers towing, battery charging and fuel supply. For the home, the company offers plumbing, electrical, glassware and locksmith services, among others.

The CA technology and software development team comprises 12 people, and the company has three open positions for developers. In addition, CA expects to double the size of this group over the next 12 to 18 months.

“We are the only Puerto Rican roadside assistance company competing in a market where companies are multinationals and play in over 25 countries. We have to be the most innovative, fastest, most technologically advanced and focused on the user experience. The technology and that return on investment is measured in our ability to compete successfully in any market with any player,” Ortiz explained.

“Today, in our [local] industry, there are no market-share figures, so I cannot textually give you a number of how the industry moves, but we are the main dispatcher of roadside assistance in Puerto Rico because we provide the most services. There are no public figures, as in the case of insurance companies that [have] some public revenues and market shares that are quite easy to compare,” he added.

CA provides about 28,000 services monthly across all markets, Ortiz said, adding that, in Puerto Rico, it dispatches about 11,000 services monthly, with a 99 percent rate of customer satisfaction, averaging a 26-minute response time throughout the entire island.

“Our goal is to reach 1 million registered cars in Puerto Rico by the end of 2020. Today, we have 840,000 registered cars with the service. It is an aggressive regional goal, but we always intend to continue to take bigger steps to stay growing,” Ortiz said.

Meanwhile, Connect Assistance’s CFO, Carlos Nieves, stressed the company’s proprietary technology is what makes the difference, allowing CA to explore other markets as it previously has done in Panama and Costa Rica to expand its footprint throughout Latin America.

“The more services we provide, those economies of scale can be used to reinvest in technology and continue to develop that unique experience we want to provide end users with our service…. In the past two years, we have invested over $2.5 million in the technology team, specifically to continue developing our proprietary platform,” Nieves said.

In addition, Nieves indicated the company exceeded $6 million in investments between two acquisitions, buying Auxilio Vial (Road Aid) in Panama in October 2017 and Coinca in Costa Rica in September 2018.

“These investments have allowed us to grow our team in Puerto Rico. Currently, we export our talent from Puerto Rico. We have people who work in areas of the business, such as project management, finance, accounting and technology, which provide services to countries where we currently have a presence,” Nieves said.




SBA Announces Funding Opportunity through State Trade Expansion Program

SAN JUAN – The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) announced Friday the opening of the submission period for a funding opportunity through the State Trade Expansion Program.

The agency said the purpose of the grant opportunity is to invite proposals for funding from eligible state entities interested in, and capable of providing assistance, guidance and tools to qualified small businesses looking to engage in export-related activities.

“The STEP grant program is an incredible tool, providing direct support to small businesses as they seek new and increased international sales opportunities,” SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza said in a release. “Over the last year, the SBA has focused on ways to reform the program to make it more efficient and effective for recipients and the small businesses they serve. We look forward to the continued success of STEP as we help more small businesses located around the country sell to a global customer base.”

Funding Opportunity Announcement No. OIT-STEP-2020-01  is for fiscal year 2020 and the submission period is from Feb. 6 to April 7. 

“Exporting is an important way for U.S. small businesses to grow revenue and boost local economies. The STEP grant is designed to assist states and U.S. territories with increasing the number of small businesses that export and the value of those exports. Through STEP, we are making additional resources available to Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands small businesses so that they have a competitive advantage in the global marketplace,” SBA District Director Yvette T. Collazo added in the release.

Proposals must be posted to grants.gov by 11:59 p.m. (EDT), April 7. For more information on submissions guidelines and rules, visit grants.gov.




Participation in Event for Quake-Hindered Businesses Urged

SAN JUAN — Batucada music, Puerto Rican food, drinks and gifts are some of the things people will enjoy when participating in “Chinchorreando por el Sur” (roughly, “Bar-hopping in the South”), an event that will be held Saturday by businesses from the island’s southern and central regions to reactivate the economy of the towns that have been affected by incessant quakes since Dec. 28.

“Our people need us more than ever, but also our business people. Without sales or consumption, there is no operation, which would mean that we could not employ personnel who have been greatly affected by the shaking. Puerto Rico is a generous island that always goes the extra mile. Therefore, and knowing our culture and culinary tradition, we did this event so people accompany us and support small and midsize businesses in the area,” said Willer Vélez, owner of Willer Cash & Carry and organizer of“ Chinchorreando por el Sur.”

”I invite the artistic class, business owners from other towns, car clubs and all those who want to join us. We will have a good time but above all continue to help those who need it most,” Vélez said.

“The first ‘chinchorreo’ will be held this Saturday, February 8, starting at 1:30 p.m. The meeting point will be Willer Cash & Carry in Yauco and from there, the group departs for several pubs, Vélez added.

The second ‘chinchorreo’ will be on Saturday, Feb. 15 at the same time and the meeting point will be Kami Kassy sports bar in Peñuelas. This latter event also has the collaboration and organization of Centro Ahorros de Peñuelas, Almacén El Ahorro and other area businesses.

For more information, call 787-531-0925.




Hotels in Puerto Rico Make Special Offers for Tourists

(Screen capture of www.discoverpuertorico.com)

SAN JUAN — Seventeen Puerto Rico hotels have joined an initiative to encourage travel to the island. The packages feature different offers, some including a free night, on-property credits or special discounts.

Discover Puerto Rico—the destination marketing organization (DMO) responsible for the island’s global marketing, sales and promotion— and the Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association (PRHTA) worked with hotels around the island to develop the packages.

“We saw a great opportunity to work this together and make a statement to the hotels to save the high season of 2020 after the cancellations received due to the earthquakes that started in early January. This a direct call to action that we are open for tourism and that we are waiting for them to show everything that Puerto Rico has to offer,” Brad Dean, the CEO of Discover Puerto Rico, explained in a press release Thursday.

After reserving three nights, guests can get a fourth night free in the following hotels: Rincón Beach Resort, AC Hotel San Juan, La Concha Renaissance Resort, Sheraton Old San Juan, Fairmont El San Juan Hotel, Courtyard San Juan Miramar and El Conquistador Resort.

Other hotels are providing a credit of up to $500 or a discount, to spend in their facilities, reserve a car, a variety of tours, among others. This group of hotels includes San Juan Marriott & Stellaris Casino, Caribe Hilton, Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel and Casino, The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort, Hyatt Regency Grand Reserve Puerto Rico, Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Puerto Rico Golf & Beach Resort, Embassy Suites by Hilton San Juan, Courtyard by Marriott Isla Verde Beach Resort, InterContinental San Juan and Verdanza Hotel.

The tourism initiative was also joined by others such as East Island Excursions, Casa BACARDÍ and Castillo Tours DMC, which are offering discounts on certain tours.

For more information, visit www.discoverpuertorico.com/deals.




FCC Sets Process for $691 Million Investment in Fixed Puerto Rico, USVI Networks

SAN JUAN — The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Wireline Competition Bureau established the procedures for its investment of up to $691.2 million over the next 10 years to support the deployment of advanced, hardened broadband and voice networks in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

This is the second stage in the agency’s rollout of support to Puerto Rico and the USVI. This stage allocates more than $500 million over 10 years in fixed broadband support through the Uniendo a Puerto Rico Fund. It also allocates more than $180 million over 10 years for fixed broadband support through the Connect USVI Fund.

The FCC explained in a press release Thursday that this funding stage will use a competitive process to award support for fixed voice and broadband services “based on the weighting of price and network performance, including speed, latency, and usage allowance.” 

The commission said it will release an application form, instructions and announce the application deadline soon, following approval by the Office of Management and Budget. The FCC allocated up to $258.8 million for mobile service, including 5G, in the islands over a three-year period.  

“Laying out this clear, manageable, and predictable process will ensure we get the best impact possible from this investment of funds. Bridging the digital divide is the agency’s top priority under Chairman Ajit Pai and we’ve put a special emphasis on helping connect Americans in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands,” Kris Monteith, chief of the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau, said in Thursday’s release. 

“This investment will help ensure that those living in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands will have access to and benefit from the same high-speed broadband services that residents of the mainland United States enjoy,” the release adds.

The Public Notice from the Wireline Competition Bureau laying out these procedures is available at: https://docs.fcc.gov/public/attachments/DA-20-133A1.pdf