Uber Eats expands in Jupiter, launches in Stuart, Port St. Lucie

Uber Eats is trying to take a bigger bite out of the food delivery market in Jupiter and beyond.

Wednesday marked the formal launch of the Uber Eats app and website in Stuart and Port St. Lucie, with expanded service in Jupiter. For a $4.99 fee, the rideshare service’s drivers deliver food from participating restaurants in a service area including Port St. Lucie, Hutchinson Island, Stuart, Palm City, Stuart Beach, Jensen Beach and Jupiter.

More than 40 participating restaurants are said to include Bagel Boyz, Kyle G’s Prime Seafood, Nitrogen Bar, Grill and Sushi, Taj Mahal, The Taste of India, Vic & Angelo’s and others, plus chain restaurants including Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza, Burger Fi, Duffy’s, Freshii, IHOP and Mulligan’s Beach House Bar & Grill.

Juan Pablo Restrepo, general manager for Uber Eats in Florida, declared his operation “excited to work with the restaurant community in St. Lucie, Martin and Palm Beach counties,” creating “new economic opportunities for delivery-partners.”

 

Gas price hikes easing? Not if Trump exits Iran deal, analysts say

Update: President Trump tweeted Monday, “I will be announcing my decision on the Iran Deal tomorrow from the White House at 2:00 p.m.”

Original post: Retail gas prices sit in a restless and jittery lull as analysts say higher costs at the pump likely await if President Donald Trump pulls out of the Iran nuclear deal by May 12.

Already oil prices have reached a 2018 high, and Friday contracts marked the priciest since November 2014. Generally that means higher costs at the gas station are in the pipeline.

Retail  prices have held steady for a week but “all bets are off right now, pending the President’s decision” on the Iranian nuclear deal, said Mark  Jenkins,  spokesman for motorist organization AAA/The Auto Club Group.

Palm Beach County’s average price fell a penny to $2.85 per gallon as it remained the state’s costliest market, according to AAA. Florida’s average fell one cent to $2.73 on Sunday, but that’s up 35 cents compared to this time last year.

Pulling the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal by a May 12 renewal deadline could mean reimposed sanctions against Iran and effectively take 1 million barrels of Iranian oil per day off the world market, resulting in reduced global oil supply and higher fuel prices, AAA said.

In Jupiter, often the priciest town in the priciest market in Florida for gasoline, costs at the pump ranged from $2.67 at a Mobil on Indiantown Rd. and Alt. A1A to $2.99 at Mobil and Shell stations elsewhere on Indiantown Road, according to price-tracker GasBuddy on Sunday.

In West Palm Beach, the low-priced leader was Cumberland Farms, $2.62 on Cresthaven Blvd. near Military Trail, according to GasBuddy.

Gas prices: Today ends most expensive April in four years

Pump prices held steady in Florida and Palm Beach County to close out the priciest April since 2014.

(Getty Images)

The  county’s average remained unchanged since last week at $2.86, but is still the highest in the state according to motorist group AAA.

Statewide the average stayed at $2.74,  but that’s 10 cents more than a month ago, and 32 cents more than last year.

“Crude prices are about 33 percent more expensive than they were this time last year,” said AAA spokesman Mark Jenkins. “Expensive oil means expensive gasoline.”

Sometimes prices vary widely within the same city, so keep an eye peeled.

In Palm Beach Gardens, for example, prices ranged from $2.72 at a Sunoco on PGA Boulevard and Prosperity Farms Road to $3.09 at another Sunoco and two Shell stations elsewhere in the same city, according to GasBuddy.

 

 

West Palm Beach’s Tax King owner sentenced to more than 10 years

The owner of Tax King Inc. in West Palm Beach has been sentenced to more than 10 years in prison for charges related to fraudulent returns and stolen identities.

Corry E. Pearson, 28, of Riviera Beach was sentenced by U.S. District Court judge Beth Bloom to 124 months after prosecutors said he and accomplices filed at least 770 fraudulent returns for more than $5 million in refunds.

Pearson plans to appeal, said his attorney Ana Davide.

“He intends to vindicate himself,” she said.

Wednesday’s sentencing comes after years of fraud and ID theft that started in 2011, according to Benjamin G. Greenberg, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida and Michael J. DePalma, acting special agent in charge for the Internal Revenue Service’s criminal investigation unit.

In some cases, defendants stole identities and collected returns for themselves and tried to disguise control of the money, federal officials said. A number of returns involved false representations about gambling losses and education credits, according to authorities.

A restitution hearing has been set for July 13.

Co-defendant Stephane Cindy Anor, also known as Stephanie Anor, 28, of West Palm Beach, previously pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and was sentenced to 36 months in prison.  She worked as a tax preparer at Tax King.

 

 

Title insurance: Shocking numbers should kill merger, group tells DOJ

Industry executives in Florida sing the merits, but the Consumer Federation of America says a proposed merger of two of the top four U.S. title insurance giants represents bad news for home buyers from West Palm Beach to Walla Walla, Wash.

CFA wrote letters to the U.S. Department of Justice and state regulators urging them to stop the marriage of Jacksonville-based Fidelity National Financial, the nation’s largest title insurance concern, with No. 4 Houston-based Stewart Information Services. The combined corporate families would control about 44 percent of a nearly $15 billion market, according to 2017 industry figures.

“The combined entity would control almost half of the title insurance market and make an over-concentrated, excessively-priced market even more expensive and abusive to American home buyers,” said J. Robert Hunter, CFA’s director of insurance. He is a former Texas insurance commissioner and past adviser to Florida regulators.

In announcing the planned merger March 19, Fidelity National said it “intends to achieve at least $135 million in operational cost synergies” and boost earnings. The deal is subject to Stewart stockholder approval and federal and state regulatory approvals. If it is approved, closing might not come until the first or second quarter of 2019.

FNF Chairman William P. Foley II said in a statement “we see tremendous potential” to grow the Stewart brand “as part of our long-time, successful strategy of operating multiple title insurance brands under the FNF umbrella.”

There’s no mention of potential benefits or savings to home buyers in the release, but FNF CEO Raymond Quirk noted “we believe there are significant operational efficiencies we can bring to bear by leveraging FNF’s shared services infrastructure that will provide meaningful long-term value creation opportunities for our shareholders.”

Hunter, who testified before Congress on the issue more than a decade ago, argues the deal threatens to make matters considerably worse in an industry he says has long fleeced consumers.

So what is title insurance again? Not many home buyers give it a ton of thought before they see it in papers to be signed at closing. It’s a kind of insurance designed to defend and compensate buyers and lenders in case of challenges to the title ownership, involving records that show who has rightful legal claim to the property.

Though consumers are typically the ones paying for this insurance, they often leave it to real estate professionals to arrange it. The rare home buyers who try to buck the system and shop around may find it no simple task to locate dramatic price differences, as title insurers wearing a whole raft of different brand names operate in a handful of corporate “families.”

This much seems clear: Premiums are growing fast, to $14.8 billion in 2017  from $9.4 billion in 2011, according to data The Palm Beach Post requested from an industry group, the American Land Title Association. That included more than $1.4 billion in premiums in Florida last year.

Yet the share of premiums spent to cover insured losses has been falling steadily. Only four cents out of every U.S. premium dollar paid in 2016 went to insured losses, down from nearly 11 cents in 2011. Hunter called that “shockingly low.” Loss ratios in other kinds of insurance such as home, car and health often run closer to 80 percent.

ALTA vice president of communications Jeremy Yohe said CFA’s account misses the mark about a business that is different in many ways from other kinds of insurance. Title insurance premiums typically cost 0.5 percent of the purchase price of the home, he said.

“This is far from excessive and in line with the cost of protecting a buyer’s property rights in Europe and other industrialized nations,” Yohe told The Post. “Unlike other types of insurance, title insurance companies deliver for their customers by spending time and money uncovering and fixing potential claims before closing. The low loss ratio is due to the search and exam, and curative process that’s done prior to issuing a policy. This work not only leads to appropriately low claims rates but also better serves home buyers.”

That’s not the tale Hunter weaves. His March 26 letter to Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim says growing market concentration only compounds problems of “reverse competition.” He says title insurers pay virtually no attention to consumers who actually pay for the products and the real game is to get real estate professionals to steer business to the title insurers.

What CFA calls “huge kickbacks, expensive gifts, and other inducements from the insurers to real estate professionals” raise the price of title insurance to “absurdly high levels.”  According to the group, a $500,000 title policy that costs $2,700 in New York sells for only $110 in Iowa, which years ago changed the way its title insurance system works.

Industry officials dispute portrayals of a systemic problem, but records show recurring tangles with regulators and government agencies. Fidelity reached a $4.5 million settlement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2011, The Post reported. HUD claimed the company “engaged in a widespread and years-long campaign to pay real estate brokers kickbacks.” Fidelity denied wrongdoing in the settlement.

“We call upon your department to undertake careful analysis of this merger,” Hunter’s letter to DOJ says. “We believe it should be stopped.”

U.S. Title Insurance Market

Premiums:

2011: $9.4 billion

2012: $11.2 billion

2013: $12.5 billion

2014: $11.4 billion

2015: $12.8 billion

2016: $13.9 billion

2017: $14.8 billion

Claims

2011: $1.02 billion

2012: $908 million

2013: $828 million

2014: $680 million

2015: $693 million

2016: $587 million

2017: Not available yet

Loss Ratio:

2011: 10.9%

2012: 8.1%

2013: 6.6%

2014: 6.0%

2015: 5.4%

2016: 4.2%

2017: Not available yet

Source: American Land Title Association

 

Boca case leads to $10 million in FTC refunds. Are you due a check?

Federal officials said this week they are ready to mail more than 36,000 checks totaling more than $10 million in a case involving a Boca Raton tech support company.

The money comes from a settlement with Inbound Call Experts LLC, doing business as Advanced Tech Support, and other defendants. The Federal Trade Commission called it a scam that used high-pressure sales tactics  to market products and services by falsely claiming to find viruses and malware on consumers’ computers.

Average refund: $277.44.  Deposit or cash the check within 60 days, officials advised. Also: Never pay money or provide account information to receive a refund check.  Questions? Call the FTC’s refund line at (877) 793-0908.

Other defendants in the case, which goes back several years, include PC Vitalware LLC, Super PC Support LLC, Robert D. Deignan, Paul M. Herdsman and Justin M. Wright. Defendants neither admitted nor denied allegations in agreeing to the settlement, according to a court order.

Inbound Call Experts appears to be still in operation, or at least maintaining a phone line under that company name. A call this week was not immediately returned.

 

Payday lenders spend $8 million, get bills they want in Florida

More than $8 million in Florida political contributions and lobbying spending from payday lenders since 2007 has set the stage for bills the industry wants to pass as the legislative session enters its final week, a report from groups opposed to the legislation says.

Legislation to double loan amounts to $1,000 and create new lending products passed the Senate Saturday (SB 920) and stands close to the finish line in the House (HB 857).

“Payday lenders trap Floridians in a cycle of debt while draining billions from our state’s residents,” said Bill Newton, deputy director of Florida Consumer Action Network. “Instead of supporting tools and products that would promote financial capability, these lawmakers appear to be doing the bidding of an industry filling their campaign coffers while hurting our communities.”

Opponents characterize the loans as predatory, often charging the equivalent of more than 200 percent annual interest.

Top payday lender donors in Florida, according to a report by the Florida Consumer Action Network and Every Voice Center.

Attempts to reach industry officials for comment were not immediately successful, but an executive told The Palm Beach Post last month that new rules are needed to update for inflation a $500 limit that has been in place for nearly two decades. And there’s another motivation: To give the industry more flexibility to operate in Florida under federal regulations that have been put on hold in the Trump administration, but have not been formally resolved.

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

MacKechnie and others say the industry provides an important source of credit in communities that don’t always have easy access to other kinds of lending.

Top individual recipients of political contributions from payday lenders, according to the report.

Amscot led political giving in the state with nearly $1.7 million since 2007, according to the report by opponents.

“A wealthy industry using campaign cash to buy policies that harm vulnerable communities is the perfect example of a political system out of balance,” said Tam Doan, research director at the Washington, D.C.-based Every Voice Center.

The industry has spent more than $5 million on lobbying in Florida over the years, his group said.

The top recipient of payday-industry political contributions since 2007 in Florida is the Republican Party of Florida, which has received more than $1.1 million, the report said. The state’s Democratic Party received more than $400,000.

Top individual recipients? State senators Dana Young, R-Tampa, and Joe Negron, R-Stuart, the Senate president, with $10,000 or more each, according to the report.

Texting and driving: Tougher rules appear dead in Senate

Update Wednesday: A House bill is positioned for formal passage of tougher enforcement of texting while driving Thursday but the measure appears unlikely to become law as a committee chairman won’t let the Senate version come to a vote.

State Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Delray Beach

Senate SB 90 sponsor Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, told the News Service of Florida he continues to push for the bill but appropriations chairman Rob Bradley has indicated the proposal likely won’t come up before the legislative session ends next week.

“All I can do is push as hard as I can on getting stuff done,” Perry said.

House co-sponsor Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Delray, offered a response to Sen. Bradley’s stated privacy concerns with HB 33.

The House bill “strikes the proper balance between privacy rights and safety,” she said.

“In addition, texting while driving is already against the law, but it’s only enforceable as secondary offense,” she continued. “Since it has taken effect, violations have been issued and I have not heard any drivers complain about Law enforcement officers attacking the privacy rights of drivers who have been cited under the current ban.

“We are elected to represent the best interests of the people we represent. It is critical that do all we can to ensure that we do not lose another life on Florida’s roadways to a texting driver.”

Original post: A Florida Senate committee’s last chance to authorize police to pull over drivers for texting on cell phones comes Tuesday and a House representative from Palm Beach County is imploring its chairman to “do the right thing.”

Florida is one of four states that don’t make texting while driving a primary offense, meaning cops cannot cite it unless they pull someone over for another infraction like speeding. At that point it brings a $30 fine, plus local add-on fees.

Records requested by The Palm Beach Post showed crash reports listing distracted driving rose 10 percent in Florida in 2016, and injuries associated with texting rose 45 percent in Palm Beach County.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, has expressed concerns SB 90 gives police too broad a pretext to stop motorists, and opens the door to invasions of privacy in the course of seeking proof on phones. The bill’s last chance to be heard in a scheduled Senate committee meeting comes Tuesday, meaning it’s near death for the 2018 session without prompt action.

The House version, HB 33, is expected to reach the floor of that chamber Wednesday and has the House Speaker’s support.

“I implore Sen. Bradley to do the right thing and bring SB 90 up for a vote in the Appropriations Committee as soon as possible,” said co-sponsor Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Delray Beach. “I also urge all Floridians to contact their local legislators and urge them to support HB 33 and SB 90.”

The bills would make texting while driving a primary offense.

Bradley, a former prosecutor, said a tougher law brings worrying considerations such as “increasing the likelihood of pretextual stops” and increasing “government-citizen involvement tenfold potentially.”

Bill supporters say Florida has some of the weakest penalties in the nation for texting, sending all the wrong signals.

“Motor vehicle crashes are the number one cause of death for teenagers,” Slosberg said.  “Primary enforcement of texting and driving laws decreases fatalities—most significantly among teenagers. ”

 

 

 

PIP car insurance, built to curb lawsuits, spurs record pile instead

A no-fault car insurance system that was supposed to reduce lawsuits in Florida has instead produced an all-time high mountain of more than 60,000 of them in 2017, a new report shows.

Source: Florida Justice Reform Institute report.

That represents a stunning rise of close to 50 percent in one year, according to data from The Florida Justice Reform Institute, a group that says it fights against wasteful litigation.

So are insurers rushing to tell legislators to repeal Florida’s Personal Injury Protection system before the session ends in early March? Guess again.

An insurance industry group never mentions PIP in its statement on the lawsuit report and has urged lawmakers to put off repeal another year.

Who benefits from keeping the current system? Florida’s top 25 car insurers have raised PIP rates up to 54 percent since the start of 2017, and on average hiked them 35 percent faster than overall premiums, The Palm Beach Post reported.

Florida drivers pay among the nation’s top six car insurance bills in one of the few states that retain a no-fault system. The state forces drivers to buy $10,000 of PIP to cover the driver’s own injuries in an accident regardless of who is at fault, no matter how much health insurance the consumer already has.

One of the justifications for PIP when it was created the 1970s was to reduce lawsuits after minor car accidents.

Almost half a century later, PIP’s relatively small benefit has hardly changed and in no way kept up with medical inflation, yet it is driving consumer rate increases and, in a final irony, leading the lawsuit parade.

Who’s suing? The lawsuits measured in the report are typically not filed by ordinary drivers but chiropractors, clinics, imaging centers and other medical providers suing insurers to get paid for PIP claims, researchers say.

PIP represents by far the largest source for a type of lawsuit that FJRI officials say is responsible for more than half of the state’s overall insurance litigation and is driving up consumer costs. It’s associated with an arrangement known as “assignment of benefits” or AOB.

It happens when third parties like a repair contractor or medical clinic tell consumers we’ll handle the claim for you if you sign this form assigning us the insurance benefit. It’s not uncommon in health care and other fields. Insurers say the trouble is, Florida’s laws provide too many incentives for some of the third parties take the insurers to court.

Yet you’d never know that PIP was involved in any way from an insurance industry group’s statement on the AOB lawsuit report. The focus is exclusively on property insurance claims representing about one-sixth as many suits compared to PIP, and auto windshield claims representing about a third as many. Insurers say these categories are growing, and PIP repeal must wait for reforms affecting lawyer fees that have stalled in the legislature for half a dozen years and seem likely to deadlock again.

“We are seeing an increase in the number of property and auto glass claims because one-way attorney fees are incentivizing AOB abuse,’’ said Logan McFaddin, the Florida-based regional manager for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America. “Legislative reform is desperately needed to curtail the number of fake or inflated claims and lawsuits. Now is the time for legislators to protect Floridians from these bad actors and help reduce insurance costs.”

OK, but how about repealing PIP and lopping off the source of the majority of AOB suits in one stroke? Then pursue additional lawsuit reforms? At least two important insurance lobby groups in Tallahassee say no thanks.

The net effect: drivers keep paying rising premiums to insurers. A state-commissioned actuarial report said drivers could save up to $81 per car if Florida repealed PIP and required bodily-injury liability coverage. A bill that passed the House 88-15 would do that. Florida is one of only two states that do not require BI insurance to make drivers responsible for injuries to others.

A Senate PIP repeal bill remains stuck in committee as the session nears its end. Asked by a Post correspondent about the issue, Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, offered a recap of committee stops with no comment on whether leadership believes it merits further attention or a vote on the floor.

“That bill has moved through one committee in the process with a favorable vote and is now in health and human services appropriations (committee), so it would be up to that committee to decide whether they want to take up the bill in the final time we’re here for session,” Negron said last week. “The short answer would be it’s undetermined.”

Instead of championing a chance for driver savings, insurers put out their own report that said rates would go up 5.3 percent under the House bill. The report prepared by Milliman Inc. for PCI acknowledged it used unverified, unaudited data from a subset of member companies that could be “biased” and chose to ignore any savings from eliminating PIP fraud. A group representing trial attorneys blasted it as not credible and inconsistent with the state report and with consumer savings in other states that dropped no-fault systems, including Colorado and Georgia.

So what’s the story? Insurers raise rates up to 54 percent in a year for PIP. Then lobbyists claim late in the session that rates would also go up under the House repeal plan. They encourage legislators not to believe a state-commissioned actuarial report that said drivers could save an average of near 6 percent on their overall bills after PIP repeal.

Now a report shows PIP is responsible for most of the lawsuits insurers are complaining about. It’s the elephant in the room, the biggest part of the mountain.

But apparently it’s not fit for mention.

See an expanded story version of this post here.

 

 

 

 

 

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.