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It wasn't too long ago that most people simply bought whatever insurance was mandated by the government and lenders, or recommended by insurance agents and friends.

Sure, diligent Fools have always purchased books and magazines on the topic, but given the pace of ever-present change, it used to be tough to get up-to-date information from all perspectives without actually spending more time and money than was saved by the effort. Nowadays, the Internet has it all, and most of it is free. By far and away, this type of comparison shopping is the activity in which the Internet has had the most dramatic impact.

Naturally, we think our Insurance Center is the top of the hill.

The sponsors of this area -- you've probably noticed their banners down the side of this page -- offer websites that are great for getting familiar with the market landscape at your own pace, without the sales pressure. They typically provide calculators for figuring your insurance needs and then provide free quotes on matching policies.

Even if you end up buying the insurance elsewhere, try out these quote sites first. (Heck, if you do end up buying from them, we'll make a little money so we can pay some editors to slog through our site and fix all the typos!). As you click around, note differences between quotes and see what patterns you can find. What are the variables that have a high influence on price? Do rates vary widely across insurance companies? When you get some specific quotes, look for links to detailed policy information.

Also, by changing the input, you can see how different carriers rate health issues of concern to you. The more variables on the quote form, the more you can learn. As long as you don't identify yourself, you should be safe.

One word of warning, though, never give out personal information like name, address, telephone, and especially, Social Security number on one of these quote sites, unless you are ready to purchase from a trusted source. There are plenty of sites that will provide information-only quotes based on age, sex, health, and medical information, or car and home details, without asking you to identify yourself.

Give out your name or phone number and you can expect agent calls before you're ready. Give out your Social Security number and you can expect a check of your credit file. Multiple inquiries on your credit history can hurt your credit rating, and anytime you give out your Social Security number, you risk identity theft. So please be careful!

With this caution in mind, though, do look for quote sites that ask for detailed information on policy variables. For example, if you get a life insurance quote based only on age and sex and smoking status, you may not get an accurate quote, unless your health status is absolutely average. The more information you give, the more accurate the quote will be.