Consumer Groups Warn Lawmakers: Beware the Fine Print in Some Bills, it’s no Joke to Consumers

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Brad Ashwell

Leaders of Top Consumer Organizations Highlight Four Issues that will Test the Legislature’s Commitment to Florida’s Consumers

Florida PIRG

TALLAHASSEE, Fla., March 30 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — Be careful what you vote for or the joke could be on Florida’s consumers. That’s the message Florida’s top consumer advocates delivered on the eve of April Fools’ Day, warning lawmakers to read the fine print on some bills quietly making their way through the legislative process.

“With more than 2,350 bills under consideration, it’s easy to miss the fine print in bills that may harm Florida’s consumers, or overlook great bills that will help our citizens,” said Brad Ashwell, consumer advocate for Florida PIRG, the Public Interest Research Group. “We want to save our legislators from bad votes that will cost consumers and tarnish lawmakers’ voting records.”

A coalition of consumer groups, including Florida PIRG, the Florida Consumer Action Network (FCAN), and the Consumer Federation of the Southeast, highlighted four pending issues that deserve to be defeated or passed based on one or more of the tenets of the Consumer Bill of Rights that President Kennedy first outlined in 1962. Two of these issues would hurt consumers; two would help. All have largely slipped under the radar during this busy session.

The issues that consumer advocates say lawmakers should OPPOSE are:

The “Free Insurance” Bill: SB 1754 by Sen. Posey, HB 1473 by Rep. Brown.

These bills repeal the prohibition against “Free Insurance” in retail consumer product sales, such as mobile phone service contracts. The Legislature should vote no on this bill, which repeals a ban on marketing “free insurance” in the consumer protection section of Florida’s unfair trade practices statute. What’s wrong with free insurance? Advocates say it’s not really free; it eliminates consumer choice and transparency in billing for cell phones, incorporates hidden charges that consumers can’t reject, eliminates important consumer safeguards  through insurance regulation, and raises costs for low-income Floridians — undermining the benefits of a proposed tax cut on cell phone bills.

“There is no such thing as a free lunch, and it’s misleading and false to suggest this insurance is free,” said Walter Dartland, president of the Consumer Federation of the Southeast.

“The Insurance charges simply will be hidden in the cost of cell phone service, providing no transparency, no choice, and no redress,” Dartland said. “Consumers will never remember they have this coverage when they need it, so few will ever use it. A cynical person might think that’s the whole intent.”

Further, as the legislation allows companies to “give” away “free insurance,” it would eliminate the enforcement power the Florida Department of Financial Services to investigate and protect against unfair trade practices regarding insurance, Dartland added.

“It’s bad all around. But the bill sounds so innocuous, legislators could easily miss what it really does,” Dartland said. “We’re helping put a big magnifying glass on the fine print for them. Two big thumbs down on so-called “free” insurance.”

The Double Rent Bill: SB 2730 by Sen. Joyner and HB 1277 by Rep. Patterson.

These bills, pushed by landlords and owners of apartment buildings, would affect millions of Florida renters. The legislation would allow landlords to collect two months’ rent from tenants who have been forced to exit their leases early — even if the landlord rents the apartment to a new tenant immediately.

“This bill would undermine the Landlord Tenant Act, rob millions of renters by legally permitting landlords to collect “double rent,” and effectively ruin the credit of renters who cannot afford the unjust penalties,” said FCAN board member Anita Davis. “By allowing landlords to collect two months’ rent for early termination of leases, and simultaneously collect rent from the apartment’s new occupant, landlords make a windfall on the backs of Florida renters.”

With the scarcity of affordable housing, and so many displaced homeowners who have been forced into rental properties by hurricane damage, there is no shortage of renters to fill vacant apartments, consumer advocates say.

“Renters deserve a fair shake, and it’s clear that being forced to pay rent on an apartment already occupied by another rent-paying tenant is unfair,” Davis said. “Legislators should do unto Floridians as they’d have done unto themselves, and they should oppose this anti-consumer legislation.”

The issues that lawmakers should SUPPORT are:
The Lifeline Bill: SB 2638 by Sen. Argenziano and HB 1565 by Rep. Zapata

The Lifeline program provides free basic telephone service to needy families through federal and state subsidies. In Florida, there are nearly one million eligible households, but only 14 percent of these participate due to a lack of awareness.

This legislation allows for the automatic enrollment of eligible households in the Lifeline program through the Department of Children and Families and related state agencies.

“Through Lifeline, low-income Floridians will be able to make calls for job interviews, connect with service providers and contact emergency services,” said Ashwell of Florida PIRG. “This is a humane, compassionate piece of legislation that will help low-income families and seniors stay connected to their communities and loved ones.”

The Universal Default Ban Bill: SB 0748 by Sen. Justice and HB 421 by Rep. Legg

The credit industry has come under fire for reaping record profits, in part by employing dubious practices to extract high fees and interest payments from consumers. Chief among these is “universal default,” the practice of drastically increasing the interest rates quoted in a cardholder’s agreement because the cardholder has missed a payment to another creditor — even when the cardholders have met all their obligations to their credit card company. HB 421 and SB 748 would ban this practice.

“The Legislature should protect Florida consumers from this unfair and unscrupulous credit practice,” Ashwell said. “This legislation will stop credit card companies from kicking consumers when they’re down, and from penalizing loyal and faithful consumers just because they missed a payment to another creditor.”