5 things Floridians need to know not to get ripped off

Here are the five things Floridians need to know to avoid getting ripped off.

1) Don't sign anything with the word 'arbitration' in it

Many consumer contracts, especially those for the purchase or financing of an automobile, include language providing for "mandatory arbitration" of any and all claims or disputes. This means that if the consumer cannot resolve any problem or dispute with the company, the consumer cannot bring a claim in court to be heard by a judge and jury and is instead required to have the case heard and decided by an arbitrator, which is a lawyer or retired judge who was picked by the company.

The arbitrator knows that if he or she rules against the company and in favor of the consumer, the company will not pick that arbitrator again. The arbitrator does not have to explain his or her decision; it can simply be arbitrary. If the consumer believes that the arbitrator did not follow the law in making the decision, there is no such thing as an appeal. The arbitrator's decision is final.

What can be done to avoid arbitration? It's simple: Don't sign anything that has the word "arbitration" in it. Look carefully, as it is often hidden in the fine print, on the back of the contract or sometimes even in a separate document.

2) There is no '3 days to change your mind'

When a consumer signs a contract, such as to buy a car, with very limited exceptions, there is no "cooling off" period or "three days to change your mind." Florida law does require such a three-day "cooling off" period for consumer contracts with health studios (gyms), weight loss programs or contracts entered into "at a place other than at the seller's fixed location business establishment," such as at your home. There are a handful of other exceptions, but generally speaking you cannot simply change your mind when you buy a car or enter into most other contracts.

Florida law does require that all retail stores which fail to exhibit a sign stating "no refund" or some other refund policy shall grant to the consumer, upon request and proof of purchase, a refund of the purchase price, within seven days of the date of purchase, provided the merchandise is unused and in the original carton, if one was furnished. If you buy a car, it is no longer "unused" once you drive it off the lot, even if it is for only one block. But, if the car dealer does not have a sign displayed stating a different refund policy, you would have seven days from signing the deal to back out and get a refund, as long as you have not yet taken delivery of the car.

All of this, however, is only relevant if you are simply changing your mind and not if you have been misled, deceived or defrauded. If the car or other goods are not as represented, you may have remedies under the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act and other laws of Florida and the United States.

3) Protect your identity

One of the fastest growing crimes in Florida is identity theft. This occurs when someone steals your personal identifying information, such as your name, Social Security number, credit card number, driver's license or other ID to commit fraud and other crimes. A thief makes large store or online purchases using your name and your credit. When the thief doesn't pay for it, guess who the seller comes after to get paid? It's you.

How can you protect yourself against ID theft? One way is to invest in a document shredder and use it to destroy things with your personal information which you are discarding, like bank and credit card statements. It is especially important to destroy any discarded credit card offers, as they can be scavenged from your trash and submitted by crooks with a change of address request, so you won't even know that your good credit is being destroyed until long after it happens.

At least once a year, order a copy of your credit reports from each of the three major credit reporting agencies -- Experian, TransUnion and Equifax -- and look for anything you don't recognize as a transaction which you actually participated in. You are entitled to a free copy of each report once a year. They can be obtained online at http://www.AnnualCreditReport.com; by mail at Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105283, Atlanta, GA 30348-5283; or by telephone at 1-877-322-8228.

4) When buying a car, don't pay 'dealer prep' unless it's included in the advertised price

Florida law permits car dealers to add certain charges, such as tax, tag and title, to the price of a car. A common such charge is often listed as "dealer prep" (short for preparation) and is charged for things like inspecting, cleaning and adjusting cars, and preparing documents related to the sale of the car. It can be called many different things, such as "document prep," "administrative fee," "service charge," "doc fee" or just about anything. The car dealer is allowed to charge as much or as little as he or she wants to, so it may be as low as $50 or as high as $900. But, under Florida law, any such charge must be included in the advertised price.

"The advertised price must include all fees or charges that the customer must pay, including freight or destination charge, dealer preparation charge, and charges for undercoating or rustproofing. State and local taxes, tags, registration fees, and title fees, unless otherwise required by local law or standard, need not be disclosed in the advertisement." -- Florida Statute Section 501.976(16).

So, if you see an advertisement for a car for sale for a stated price, the car dealer can legally add charges for taxes and tags and registration and title, but the dealer cannot legally add to the advertised price any additional charge for services performed before delivery, such as those for preparing the car or the documents necessary for the sale process to occur.

Before you buy a car, examine the buyer's order or sales contract or other sale document and look for these type of charges. If there is a line item listing any such charge in addition to the advertised price, tell the dealer to take it out as it is violating the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. Also, just like the price of the car, the price of "dealer prep" (or whatever your car dealer calls it) is negotiable. Even if it is included in the advertised price, these charges can be negotiated. If one dealer won't decrease or remove it, try the dealer down the street. Remember, they need your business more than you need their car.

5) Don't get taken for a ride by a car repair shop

Automobile repair shops must comply with the requirements of the Florida Motor Vehicle Repair Act. Under this law, all such shops must be registered with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Repairs to automobiles include maintenance, modifications, paint and body work, warranty work and diagnostic work (figuring out what's wrong that needs to be fixed). Generally, if the cost of a repair will be more than $100 to the customer, upon request the repair shop must provide the customer with a written estimate stating the estimated price of the repair including any diagnosis, the proposed work completion date, a general description of the problem, a statement of whether the job is being done for a flat rate or by the hour, the total estimated cost of the repair, what if anything is guaranteed and for what time or mileage, and a statement of any charges for storage of the vehicle after the customer is notified that the work is completed.

The estimate must be given to the customer before the work is begun, unless the customer signs a statement waiving the right to receive it. If the customer leaves their car at a repair shop during hours when the shop is not open or if the customer permits the shop or another person (such as a tow company) to deliver the motor vehicle to the shop, there is an implied partial waiver of the written estimate, but upon completion of diagnostic work necessary to estimate the cost of repair, the shop must notify the customer by telephone or other means. The shop must also promptly notify the customer if it has determined that the cost of the repair will exceed the written estimate; however, such extra charges cannot be more than an additional $50. All repairs must be performed in compliance with accepted practices and professional standards.

Repair shops are entitled to be paid for the work that they do, as long as it is done competently and in compliance with the Florida Motor Vehicle Repair Act and other applicable local laws, such as county and city codes. The repair shop is entitled to impose a lien on the car for the money they are owed and to hold on to the car until they are paid. However, if a customer has a dispute with a repair shop, he or she can take the unpaid bill to the clerk of the circuit court in his or her county and pay the amount of the bill plus any accrued storage charges into the court registry. The clerk will then issue a certificate stating that they are holding the money and that the car should be released. When a repair shop is presented with such a certificate, it is a misdemeanor crime for the shop not to release the car to the customer. The repair shop would then have 60 days to file a lawsuit to recover the monies posted with the clerk. If such a lawsuit is not timely filed, the Clerk must return the money to the customer. No particular form need be used by the customer to do this, and the Clerk can assist the customer in the process.

Unfortunately, there will always be businesses which take advantage of consumers. However, it is much harder to take advantage of an educated consumer who knows what is or is not permitted as a business practice, or at least who knows how to find out what business practices are permitted and what remedies are available to a consumer who has been ripped off. More information can be found online, by telephone or by talking to a Florida licensed attorney who is experienced in consumer protection law.