Payday loans: Make ’em bigger in Florida? Senior group says no

For those who think the problem with payday loans is too many government restrictions, bills in the state legislature aim to please by doubling to $1,000 the amount that can be loaned at a time.

Folks who call such products “predatory” might be more inclined to cheer on a senior advocacy group that plans to raise a fuss online today.

“Some borrowers end up in a ‘debt trap’ and lose everything, even their homes,” said AARP Florida state director Jeff Johnson in an email to members. “In fact, payday lenders have already stripped more than $2.5 billion dollars in fees from Floridians since 2005, with more than $311 million collected last year alone. Wealth stripping affects us all and negatively affects our communities.”

The fees can quickly amount to an annual interest rate of more than 200 percent, far higher than anything generally found with homes, cars or credit cards. The borrowers are typically lower-income folks, including a number of seniors, who can get mired in a series of loans to pay off mounting costs, AARP says.

Johnson urged members to contact legislators to oppose HB 857 and join a Facebook Live event 4 p.m. Monday, Feb. 5, at www.facebook.com/AARPFL.

Payday lenders make a different case.

“Millions of American consumers use small-dollar loans to manage budget shortfalls or unexpected expenses,” Dennis Shaul, CEO of the Community Financial Services Association of America, has put it.  Tight regulation will “only serve to cut off their access to vital credit when they need it the most,” he said.

Nationally, payday loans often run between $200 and $1,000, due when a borrower receives the next paycheck. They have been capped at $500 at a time in Florida.

Generous political contributions seem  to be paying off for payday lenders. They gave more than $62,000 in campaign contributions to Trump administration budget director and interim Consumer Financial Protection Bureau chief Mick Mulvaney when he was a congressman, according to gift-tracker opensecrets.org.

Mulvaney suspended tougher federal rules about to go into effect, placing them under review in January.  Legislative efforts at the state level, launched partly in anticipation of tighter U.S. regulations, have continued anyway in Florida.

“The fact that payday lenders are trying to evade a consumer protection rule that may not even go into effect is really beyond the pale,” said Alice Vickers, director of the Florida Alliance for Consumer Protection, which opposes the bill.

The Senate version, SB 920, is sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island. He said the industry offers a valuable source of credit to 1.2 million Floridians and if regulations get it wrong, it could mean “10,000 jobs threatened.”

Though there are some circumstances in which consumers could pay less compared to current law, the bill would let lenders in other cases roughly double their fees per $1,000 borrowed, from $110 to $214.68, according to a Senate staff analysis.

Update: An industry executive told The Palm Beach Post on Monday that new rules are necessary to update for inflation a $500 limit that has been in place for 17 years. Another reason: to keep the loans viable in Florida under federal regulations  that have been put on hold in the Trump administration, but have not been formally ruled in or out.

“One million people in Florida use this product every year,”  said Ian A. MacKechnie, executive vice chairman of Amscot Financial Inc. “The safe thing is assuming the (federal) regulation is going to be effective.”

MacKechnie characterized reports of harm to borrowers as overblown and said default rates are only about 1.8 percent in Florida.

 

 

 

 

Young drivers cause more crashes around Thanksgiving on Florida turnpike highways

Young drivers are more likely to be involved in traffic crashes on Thanksgiving weekend on highways in Florida’s Turnpike system, according to data from Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise.

As a result of a startling report from the federal government last year that showed fatal crashes saw their highest spike in nearly five decades, turnpike engineers conducted their own analysis of traffic data to find trends and possible causes on turnpike system highways, which include the main turnpike, the Sawgrass Expressway and hundreds of miles of other tolled roadways throughout Florida.

>>RELATED: Thanksgiving travel – Local airports brace for busy week

 

Florida's Turnpike Enterprise is targeting younger drivers with this holiday message encouraging motorists to slow down and pay attention. (Florida's Turnpike Enterprise Twitter, @fl511_turnpike)
Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise is targeting younger drivers with this holiday message encouraging motorists to slow down and pay attention. (Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise Twitter, @fl511_turnpike)

During the Thanksgiving weekend — Wednesday through Sunday — in 2012, 2013 and 2014, the percentage of crashes on the turnpike system caused by drivers ages 16 to 24 jumped from 24 percent during non-holiday months to 37 percent during the holiday weekend. In addition, more than half of turnpike system crashes on the Thanksgiving weekend were caused by careless or negligent drivers.

» RELATED: Older teens at higher risk when it comes to fatal crashes, new report says

In comparison, the next age group is drivers ages 36 to 45, who cause about 22 percent of wrecks on Thanksgiving weekends, turnpike engineers found.

To stem the tide of young drivers involved in crashes around Thanksgiving, the Turnpike Enterprise is doing more community outreach targeted at young drivers who might need a reminder to put down their phones and pay attention to the road.

The electronic turnpike message signs will feature reminders with a “non-traditional approach,” said turnpike spokesman Chad Huff.

For Thanksgiving, drivers will see, “Don’t be a turkey. Slow down, save a life.” Coming up for Christmas: “Nobody likes a holiday crasher. Put down the phone.”

Turnpike officials also will target young drivers via social media, including posts on Twitter and Facebook.

“We’re trying to communicate with drivers, reaching that demographic,” Huff said.

>>RELATED: The best and worst times to drive and fly this Thanksgiving

>>RELATED: Thanksgiving 2017: Best ways to show gratitude 

 

 

Irma: Delay, denial complaints begin; insurer’s outlook downgraded

A month after Hurricane Irma, consumers are starting to let state agencies know of more than 150 complaints ranging from long waits for adjusters to denial of claims, officials told a Florida Senate committee Tuesday.

One issue: High hurricane deductibles, often 2 percent to 5 percent of a home’s worth, mean many consumers are paying thousands of dollars out of their own pocket before insurance kicks in. Nearly half the roughly 8,000 claims resolved so far in Palm Beach County have been closed without any payment from the insurer, The Palm Beach Post reported.

“A lot of people have deductibles way more than that what their damage is, and a lot of people can’t afford it,” said Chip Merlin, founder of The Merlin Group law firm, which represents policyholders and has offices in Tampa and West Palm Beach.

Florida insurance commissioner David Altmaier told the Senate banking and insurance committee no company appears to be at risk of losing financial solvency after Hurricane Irma.

Still,  a ratings firm has downgraded the outlook to negative for one of the state’s top dozen insurers.

Tower Hill Prime Insurance Co. of Gainesville, which recently had about 145,000 customers according to a state database, retains a financial strength rating of A- (Excellent), but A.M. Best revised its outlook from stable to negative.

“Operating performance is not expected to improve in 2017 as the impact of Hurricane Irma is projected to drive an underwriting loss for the year,” a statement from A.M. Best said Sept. 29.

A Tower Hill statement said storms in 2016 and 2017 have eroded profits after efforts to address non-storm claims such as plumbing leaks, which a number of state insurers maintain are frequently abused by attorneys and contractors who get consumers to sign over insurance benefits.

“A.M. Best recognized Tower Hill Prime’s appropriate capitalization and the company remains financially secure,” Tower Hill Prime said in a statement.

Statewide, about 703,000 Irma claims have been filed for an estimated $4.6 billion in potential payments from insurers.

For a question or complaint about an insurance claim, call the state’s insurance consumer helpline at 1-877-693-5236.

For federal aid with damage not covered by insurance, apply at www.DisasterAssistance.gov or call the FEMA Helpline at 800-621-3362. Or get help in person at a recovery center, such as the Carolyn Sims Center, 225 NW 12th Ave., Boynton Beach.

 

Hurricane Irma: Inspection backlogs grow as $5.3B OKed in claims, aid

Estimated insured losses and federal grants in Florida top $5.3 billion for Hurricane Irma, and the number is likely to grow because inspections have not yet been completed on tens of thousands of Palm Beach County households seeking help with home damage.

Wellington resident Cathy Damico throws a pair of cedar planks off of the roof of her Cherry Lane home on Monday, September 11, 2017, the day after Hurricane Irma affected Palm Beach County in Florida. Damico said the storm caused a tree branch to fall on her roof, opening a hole in her daughter’s bedroom ceiling. (Andres Leiva / The Palm Beach Post)

Multiple storms in a matter of weeks across the southeast, including hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Nate, have stretched thin resources for everything from federal grant inspections to claims adjusting for private insurers.

More than 20,000 insurance claims in the county have yet to be resolved, out of more than 28,000 filed, according to the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation.

So far, almost as many insurance claims have been closed without payment (3,918) as with payment (4,109) in Palm Beach County.

The estimated value of claims filed so far against private insurers statewide is about $4.6 billion.

Possible reasons for closing claims without payment range from not meeting hurricane deductibles to finding claims invalid or payable by federal flood insurance as opposed to private homeowner policies.

“I had hoped by keeping up on my insurance it wasn’t going to be wiping out my savings,” said Lake Worth resident John Flynn, whose insurer told him he likely won’t meet a hurricane deductible of nearly $6,000.

Federal Emergency Management Agency grants exceed $700 million, with about $46 million approved in Palm Beach County, spokesman John Mills said.

A disaster recovery center in Boynton Beach remains open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and another center is being considered in the western portion of the county, though disaster survivor assistance teams are working in the area, Mills said.

In addition, the Small Business Administration has approved more than $34 million in disaster loans to Florida businesses and residents, including a little under $1 million in Palm Beach County, officials said Monday.The deadline to apply is Nov. 9 for homeowners and renters.

FEMA grants can range from emergency assistance with food, shelter and other  immediate needs to helping cover emergency repairs and uninsured damage at residences.

About 35,000 households have applied for FEMA grants that can include compensation related to home damage in Palm Beach County, with about 6,000 residential inspections completed as of Friday.

How do I get help?

For damage not covered by insurance, apply at www.DisasterAssistance.gov. For more information, check fema.gov or call the FEMA Helpline at 800-621-3362. Or get help in person at a recovery center, such as the Carolyn Sims Center, 225 NW 12th Ave., Boynton Beach.

 

 

Lake Worth man faces new order on phony FTC release, computer fixes

A Lake Worth man has been ordered to pay more than $52,000 and stop faking Federal Trade Commission press releases to sell useless tech support services.

An FTC complaint says this fake email press release was sent to consumers.

The FTC filed a complaint in April against Daniel L. Croft, doing business as PC Guru Tech Support and Elite Tech Support. Federal officials alleged he contacted consumers by email and used fake FTC press releases and the names of real agency staff members to trick consumers into contacting him so he could try to sell them unnecessary tech support services.

“The so-called ‘Federal Trade Commission Report’ is designed to look like a press release issued by the FTC and includes the FTC’s seal and motto, and even lists two FTC attorneys who work in the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection,” the FTC’s complaint noted.

But the report was completely “bogus,” the complaint said.

Federal officials obtained a default judgment. An order issued July 20 by U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks in West Palm Beach imposes a fine and permanent injunction. Attempts to reach Croft for comment were not successful. There is no defense attorney listed in court records.

Nationwide settles with Fla., states on data breach of 1.27M customers

Insurer Nationwide “demonstrated true carelessness while collecting and retaining information from prospective customers,” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said Wednesday as 32 states including Florida settled charges related to a data breach.

In a company statement, Nationwide said it “is pleased to have reached a settlement that we believe is consistent with our longstanding commitment to protect customer information.”

The breach dates back to 2012. The states allege it was caused by the failure to apply a critical security patch intended to prevent hacking and viruses, resulting in the loss of personal information belonging to 1.27 million consumers including Social Security numbers, driver license and other information.

Information was collected from prospective customers, many of whom did not ultimately buy policies from Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. or subsidiary Allied Property & Casualty Insurance Co.

Nationwide will pay a total of $5.5 million. It agreed to a series of steps to strengthen security procedures including the hiring of a technology officer to oversee compliance.

A company spokesman said Nationwide does not believe it broke any data security laws:

“More than four years ago, a portion of our computer network used by Nationwide Insurance agents and Allied Insurance agents was subject to a sophisticated, criminal attack. We discovered the attack that day and took immediate steps to successfully contain the attack. We promptly reported the criminal attack to law enforcement authorities and notified individuals whose personal information we believed may have been compromised. We also offered those individuals a free credit monitoring and identity theft protection product.”

 

How safe is your water? Check EWG’s database by zip code.

EWG’s database is an easy way to check water supplies around the country. Provided.

If you want to know more about potentially harmful chemicals that may be in your drinking water, check out Environmental Working Group’s new national  Tap Water Database.

FIND OUT HOW SEPTIC SYSTEMS ARE POLLUTING DRINKING WATER

By  entering your zip code or local utility’s name, you can find all contaminants detected in tests by the utilities themselves and reported to federal or state authorities. Every water utility in Palm Beach County is included in the database.

EWG ALSO PUBLISHES THE “DIRTY DOZEN” PRODUCE LIST

The database contains data from almost 50,000 public water systems in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

It identifies pollutants found in virtually all U.S. water systems, said Sonya Lunder, EWG senior analyst.

Lunder said the point of the database is make people aware that there is a big gap between what is legal in the water supply and what is safe. Most water systems are in compliance,  but even so, may still contain contaminants in concentrations exceeding the levels that scientists say pose health risks, she said.

“It is definitely less safe than people believe. I think people assume they are going to smell or taste the problem or see discolored water,” Lunder said.

EWG researchers spent the last two years collecting data from state agencies and the EPA for drinking water tests conducted from 2010 to 2015 by 48,712 water utilities in all 50 states and D.C. All told, the utilities tested for approximately 500 different contaminants and found 267.

Contaminants detected in the nation’s tap water included:

  • 93 linked to an increased risk of cancer. More than 40,000 water systems had detections of known or likely carcinogens exceeding established federal or state health guidelines – levels that pose minimal but real health risks, but are not legally enforceable.
  • 78 associated with brain and nervous system damage.
  • 63 connected to developmental harm to children or fetuses.
  • 45 linked to hormone disruption.
  • 38 that may cause fertility problems.

Of course, it is difficult to quantify exactly what the risk is and  how large a role contaminants found in water may play in any disease. The cancer risk would vary, Lunder said, adding that people should be concerned about the effects of contaminated drinking water  combined with exposure from other sources, such as polluted air.

EWG also provides a list of filter systems that can significantly reduce the contaminant levels in their water. It receives 3 percent of sales of filters sold on Amazon to people who have clicked through from its website.

A large source of pollution across the country is agricultural and industrial runoff that ends up in the water supply.

But for Palm Beach County’s largest water utility, the Palm Beach County Water Utilities Department,  that isn’t a problem. The water it supplies to 530,000 people comes from the underground Biscayne Aquifer and in the Glades, from the deeper Floridan Aquifer, the utility’s spokesman Shawn Reed said.

After being drawn from the aquifers, the water is filtered and disinfected.

The EWG database states the utility’s water was found to have two contaminants detected at levels above health guidelines.

However, under the Safe Drinking Water Act, there are no  mandated levels of the two chemicals, chlorate and hexavalent chromium, said Palm Beach County Water Utilities spokesman Shawn Reed.

Reed said that chlorate is a  byproduct of chemicals used to disinfect water. Chromium is naturally occurring in the rock surrounding the water in the aquifers.

“The numbers they are reporting are correct. We have provided those to the EPA and that is where EWG has gotten them from,” Reed said.

The Environmental Protection Agency has standards that all water utilities have to meet, and Palm Beach County Water Utilities meets those.

“”If the EPA chooses to add chlorate and hexavalent chromium  to the guidelines, we will meet the levels they determine for those,” Reed said. “The important thing to note is that the drinking water is safe. We do meet all the standards that have been established.”

 

 

 

 

 

Nuclear panel: FPL’s plan to inject wastewater into ground is okay

FPL’s Turkey Point nuclear plant is shown here. The company is seeking to add two more nuclear reactors at the site.

In a blow to those opposed to Florida Power & Light’s license application to build two new nuclear reactors at its Turkey Point plant, a federal panel has agreed that the environmental impact of injecting treated, reclaimed wastewater into deep wells will be “small.”

The proposal calls for millions of gallons of wastewater containing at least four contaminants from the proposed Turkey Point 6 and 7 nuclear units’ cooling system to be injected into 13 deep wells into the Boulder Zone underlying the site overlooking Biscayne Bay south of Miami.

WHAT’S THE CONTROVERSY OVER FPL’S TURKEY POINT COOLING CANALS?

Intervenors have asserted that wastewater injected into the Boulder Zone, which begins at 3,030 feet below ground, could migrate upward to the Middle and Upper Floridan Aquifers. The  Floridan Aquifer System  supplies water to millions of people and is the major source of ground water supply in Florida.

FPL spokesman Peter Robbins said Tuesday, “We’re pleased, but it is one step in a long and detailed process. We continue to seek the federal licenses, and that is still our focus.”

NRC, ARMY CORPS GIVE ENVIRONMENTAL OKAY TO NEW REACTORS

The National Parks Conservation Association, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and Miami-Dade residents Capt. Dan Kipnis and Mark Oncavage legally intervened in the federal licensing proceedings in 2010.

Caroline McLaughlin, Biscayne program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association said Tuesday, “From our perspective, the disappointing decision by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board doesn’t change the fact we still have serious concerns about the expansion proposal and its potential threats to Biscayne National Park and Everglades restoration.”

Sara Barczak, SACE’s high risk energy choice program director, said the  intervenors are evaluating whether to appeal the decision.

At a May  hearing in Homestead, the intervenors asserted that the project’s final environmental impact statement is deficient. The chemical concentrations of ethylbenzene, heptachlor, tetrachloroethylene and toluene in the wastewater may adversely impact the groundwater should they migrate from the Boulder Zone to the Upper Floridan Acquifer.

In a 42-page ruling issued July 10, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board said that the NRC staff has demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence that the environmental impacts of the proposed deep injection wells will be “small.”

The reasons? The wastewater is unlikely to migrate to the Upper Floridan Aquifer, and even if it did the concentration of each of the four contaminants would be below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s primary drinking water standard and would pose no known health risk, the board wrote.

FPL ORDERED TO FIX TURKEY POINT’S SALTY PLUME

McLaughlin said while the NRC panel looked at only one narrow issue involving the proposed new reactors, there is already widespread contamination into the Biscayne Aquifer from the two existing reactors’ cooling canals.

WILL FPL’S FIX TO TURKEY POINT CANALS WORK?

SACE’s expert Mark Quarles argued that FPL needs to conduct seismic-reflection surveys which would provide a better way to show if upward migration could occur. The method has been endorsed by the federal U.S. Geological Survey.

Since the new reactors are not likely to be built before 2031, there is plenty to time to do such studies, Barczak said.

FPL’s Robbins said the company expects the NRC to issue the licenses by the end of this year or early next year. However, FPL plans to pause the project once it receives the license while it continues to observe nuclear construction projects in Georgia and South Carolina.

 

Gasoline prices could be increasing soon, AAA says

Gasoline prices are low, but could be headed back up soon.

Provided.

The estimated 37.5 million Americans who hit the road on Independence Day found the lowest gas prices in more than a decade, according to AAA, whose data is collected from credit card swipes and direct feeds from 120,000 gas stations nationwide, in cooperation with OPIS and Wright Express.

But prices could inch up in the next week or two.

READ MORE ABOUT WHY GAS PRICES ARE SO LOW

 

“Unfortunately the pump price plunge may soon come to an end,” said AAA spokesman Mark Jenkins. “We are entering a six-week period where demand is normally the strongest of the year. Plus, oil and wholesale prices made solid gains last week, reaching a level that should cause gas prices to level off. Motorists in some markets may see pump prices climb 5-10 cents in the next week or two as a result.”

YOUR IDENTITY COULD BE STOLEN AT THE GAS PUMP

Palm Beach County’s average for a gallon of regular stood at $2.26 Wednesday, down just fractions of a cent from Tuesday, according to AAA’s Fuel Gauge Report.

The cheapest gasoline is at $1.95 a gallon for regular at Rocket Fuel, 100 N. Federal Highway, North Palm Beach. The next lowest price is $1.97 at 7-Eleven, 1220 Federal Highway, Lake Park, as reported on GasBuddy.com

About 10 Palm Beach County stations are selling gasoline at $1.99 Wednesday. To search in your area, go to GasBuddy.com

Although the national average of $2.23 was the lowest for the holiday in 12 years, gas prices in the southeastern U.S. were the lowest in 13 years. On July 4 gas prices averaged $2.15 in Florida – 9 cents less than a year ago a year ago, and the lowest price for the holiday since 2004.

Florida’s daily gas price averages are the lowest since November 2016. The state average declined for the 31st consecutive day on Tuesday, for a total of 23 cents since June 3.

The oil market has steadily climbed during the past week after EIA data showed domestic oil production lowered by about 100,000 barrels per day, for the week ending on June 23. Moreover, last week Baker Hughes Inc. reported that for the first time in 24 weeks, the U.S. oil rig count declined by two – bringing the total rig count to 756. Neither of these declines are considered dramatic, but the sudden shift in fundamentals was enough to send oil prices higher. Market watchers will look to today’s EIA data report to see if this trend continues, in hopes it will steer prices higher.

The price of crude rose for the 10th consecutive day Monday, settling at $47.07 per barrel. Crude prices are up $4.54 since reaching this year’s lowest daily settlement of $42.53 on June 21.

 

Gasoline dips to $1.99 at three Palm Beach County stations

At least three Palm Beach County stations are selling regular gasoline at $1.99 a gallon. (Post file photo)

Just in time for Fourth of July travelers, $1.99 a gallon gasoline is being sold in Palm Beach County.

As of Wednesday morning, only three stations have reached the price point coveted by consumers, according to reports on GasBuddy.com

They are Rocket Fuel, 100 N. Federal Highway, North Palm Beach; Murphy USA, 1050 N. Military Trail and Raceway, 288 N. Haverhill Road, both in suburban West Palm Beach.

While GasBuddy showed no stations offering gas at $2 a gallon, numerous stations have fuel priced at $2.01 to $2.02.

RELATED: CHEAP GASOLINE IS HERE, BUT DON’T OVERPAY

GasBuddy warned earlier this week that the price spread between stations will be huge, and that motorists should check prices before venturing out. That can be done on GasBuddy.com.

Fourth of July weekend prices are expected to be the lowest in more than a decade.

Record refinery rates, high gasoline and crude inventory, and less-than-favorable demand this year are among the contributing factors causing the downward price trend, AAA said.

RELATED: IS $2 A GALLON GASOLINE HERE YET?

Meanwhile, the Palm Beach County average for a gallon of regular inched down another penny overnight to $2.28. A week ago the county’s average was $2.34, according to AAA’s Fuel Gauge Report.

Florida’s average Wednesday stands at $2.18, also down a penny overnight, and from $2.24 a week ago.