SAN JOSE (CBS 5) -- Thousands use Public Storage to store their belongings. But some say when there's a break-in, even with the insurance that Public Storage recommends, you're left holding the bag.
Ana Leon thought her things would be safe at a Public Storage location on Maybury Road in San Jose. Then one day she came to check.
"There was only about half the stuff or less," Leon said. Someone had broken in. "It was about $12,000 worth of items that were gone"
Lucky for Leon she had insurance. And it was a Public Storage employee who convinced her to buy that policy, from a company called Willis. "It sounded like if your things are stolen, we're going to cover you," Leon said.
Leon filed a claim, but right away, there were problems. A Willis representative called Leon to leave this message: "I spoke with Public Storage and their policy does require some sort of proof of forced entry."
She sent them the lock from her storage unit. But the Willis rep called Leon back and said, "The lock did not show it was forcibly opened. It looks like it was just a defective lock."
Even though a police report clearly said an "unknown suspect forced open the master lock," Willis claimed it was not broken. And, the Willis rep called again to say: "Unfortunately your claim will not be accepted."
"I think it's ridiculous," said Leon. "I told them mail it back to me so I can have a professional check the lock." But she said Willis refused to give it back.
A month later, police found some of her stolen items in a nearby locker. "The police said they were following a group of about ten people that had been doing this throughout Public Storages and they just rent the storage for a month," said Leon.
But Willis continued to insist there was no proof of burglary. "I still get upset just thinking about it. There's all this evidence, they found some of the stolen things," Leon said.
As it turns out, Leon is not alone. There are lots of complaints to the better Business Bureau about insurance issues at Public Storage.
So why are seemingly obvious burglary claims being denied? The answer may be in a class action lawsuit. It alleges that back in 2006 Public Storage set up a group of front insurance companies under various names. But it was actually Public Storage collecting premiums, denying claims and profiting at both ends.
Willis started working with Public Storage after the lawsuit was filed, and is not named in the suit.
But Leon suspects Public Storage is also controlling how Willis responds to claims, because employees push their insurance so hard.
CBS 5 ConsumerWatch experienced the same thing, when we went undercover at another Public Storage.
"Insurance is required," the employee told us. We showed our video to Jerry Whitfield with the California Insurance Commissioner's office, who oversees insurance companies. "When you in fact solicit the purchase of insurance you are doing things that only licensed agents can do," Whitfield said after looking at the video.
Public Storage isn't licensed to sell insurance or even discuss it. But they did in our undercover video, explaining to us how deductibles work and much more.
"If they are going to provide the type of information they provided, the storage facility should have been licensed. And these employees should have been trained under the requirements of our licensing laws," said Whitfield.
Public Storage turned down CBS 5's request for an on-camera interview, saying only in a statement that it "cares about the safety of its customers and the security of their belongings," and that Willis is "an independent insurance provider."
As for Willis, the company told CBS 5 it is still investigating Leon's case. But a few days after we contacted them, and six months after denying her claim, Leon says Willis called to tell her it was approved.
"I think people need to know about it, people need to stop paying insurance if they don't know what they are paying for," said Leon.
CBS 5 ConsumerWatch searched police records and found 22 break-ins at just this one Public Storage facility in the past two years.
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