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Advocacy Groups Push String of Consumer Protection Bills

By Gina Jordan

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-886511.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – Concerned about criminals preying on victims of the recession, consumer advocates came together this week at the Capitol. They called on lawmakers to pass a series of bills aimed at protecting families and stimulating Florida's economy. Their goals include a crackdown on predatory business practices.

The Florida Consumer Coalition is using an economy besieged by job losses, record foreclosures, and unscrupulous debt collectors as their backdrop. Senator Dan Gelber, Democrat of Miami Beach, helped announce a string of proposals that he says will turn things around.

"There really needs to be a recognition up here in Tallahassee that our citizens are in harm's way right now, and we have to be especially vigilant about who's looking out for them, who's protecting them, who has their back. And these bills, I think the common linkage they have, is that they are intended to help people who probably legitimately don't believe anybody up here has their back. "

Gelber, who is running for Attorney General, says services are needed for low income families and the elderly now more than ever. But too many people are looking for ways to make easy, dishonest money out of someone else's circumstances. Gelber says the bills supported by the coalition would bring a lot of hope, with very little fiscal impact.

"If you look at economic dislocation, if you look at a recession, you'll see that there are always predators. There are always people who are preying on everyday Floridians, whether it's in loan originations, perhaps combining of debt servicing, whether it's renters who are being thrown out of their homes. So, economic dislocation creates opportunity for people who want to do good and people who want to do bad."

Brad Ashwell with the Florida Public Interest Research Group says advocacy groups like AARP, 1000 Friends of Florida and Florida Legal Services stay in constant contact, so it makes sense that they would create a united front as they try to get the attention of lawmakers.

"As consumer advocates, we're always dealing with a streamlined staff and small budgets. So we really have to do as much as we can with less, and there's strength in numbers. So we as individual groups all work on our specific issues, and together we're trying to give each other support on a variety of different issues. That way we have a greater impact on the Legislature."

Ashwell says they're looking at a lot of different bills to support. They include measures that would protect renters of properties that are being foreclosed on, increase the amount of wages that are exempt from being garnished, revise the standards of conduct for Public Service Commissioners, and expand the authority of the Attorney General to go after out-of-state debt collectors.

"It's amazing how business interests in different industries are seizing the opportunity of an economic downturn to really squeak nickels and dimes and really bleed consumers at every turn."

Other bills supported by the Coalition would reform Florida's now empty unemployment compensation fund, crack down on companies that offer bogus credit repair services, and bring tougher penalties for annuity fraud. The coalition says a recovery cannot take place without protecting the economic and social well being of all Floridians.