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Who's allowed to charge a fee for using credit cards in Florida?

 
A Florida law prohibits charging a fee for customers paying with credit cards. But that doesn't apply to government entities and public utilities.Pictured is a holiday shopper paying with a credit card. | [Zack Wittman | Times]
A Florida law prohibits charging a fee for customers paying with credit cards. But that doesn't apply to government entities and public utilities.Pictured is a holiday shopper paying with a credit card. | [Zack Wittman | Times]
Published June 1, 2018

If you've made a trip to the tax collector's office or paid a utility bill recently, you were likely charged a small amount extra if you used a credit card.

Under Florida law, it historically has been illegal to charge an extra fee if a customer wants to pay with a credit card. Unless, that is, the entity charging the fee is a government agency or public utility.

The Hillsborough County Tax Collector's office charges a convenience fee of $2.95 to use a credit card for online motor vehicle transactions, and a 2.35 percent credit card fee for in-person motor vehicle transactions. Property taxes paid with a credit card carry a 2.35 percent fee both online and in-person.

Mailed checks and e-checks online do not carry a fee.

According to Doug Belden, Hillsborough County Tax Collector, the agency does not keep any of the fee — it all goes to the vendor.

The fee, he said, "that's just the cost of doing business."

Belden said that the majority of customers using online services through his office are for property taxes, which average above $2,000. The convenience fee, he said, is a fairly small percentage of that.

Similar fees exist with the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. To renew a driver's license or motor vehicle registration with the Department of Highway Safety, there is a $2 convenience fee for paying through a service called GoRenew.com. Paying through the MyFlorida app brings a $4 convenience fee for paying with a credit card.

Vendors such as retailers, for example, typically cannot charge customers a fee for credit cards. However, education-related transactions, such as tuition, are allowed to come with an extra charge for credit cards.

The utilities, tax collector and Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles all claim exemption under a different part of the law that says government entities can charge for using a credit card.

They're allowed to under a statute that encourages government agencies to allow payment with credit cards "to make their services more convenient to the public and to reduce the administrative costs of government."

Under this section, "state agencies, the judicial branch and units of local government" all can charge a convenience fee for using a credit card, as long as the fee isn't more than what's charged by the third-party payment processor the agency contracts with.

And a 2007 advisory opinion by the Florida Attorney General extends that ability to public utilities.

"Yes, a surcharge is allowed (by government agencies) and a surcharge is definitely allowed if the utility is a municipal utility," said Jim Giardina, lawyer with the Tampa-based Consumer Rights Law Group.

Some customers — who are no fans of the government exemption — are going extra lengths to avoid paying extra.

Marcie Musgrave, Tarpon Springs resident, opts to write a physical check for her water bill to avoid a convenience fee. She was surprised recently at what she considered a fairly hefty convenience fee for using a credit card to renew vehicle registrations.

"Somehow, this whole operation doesn't sound convenient at all," she said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

Consumer advocates say it's not fair that government agencies and utilities can charge a fee, especially if they keep any portion of the fee.

"These fees are what really nails you, too, on things like this," said Bill Newton, deputy director of the Florida Consumer Action Network.

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But the legality of credit card charges in Florida may be in further flux — a court case arguing that vendors should be allowed to charge a fee made its way to a federal appeals court, which found in 2015 that the Florida statute prohibiting credit card charges was unconstitutional.

That means any vendor could feasibly charge a fee for using a credit card, Consumer Rights Law Group's Giardina said. Though the opinion is binding, Giardina said, it's worth noting that it wasn't unanimous. The three-judge panel had one dissenting judge.

In practical terms, Giardina said, "yes, a surcharge is allowed (by government), a surcharge is definitely allowed if the utility is a municipal utility and a surcharge is probably allowed if it's a private company," he said.

Companies, however, don't seem to be challenging the no-fee law yet.

Contact this reporter at mcarollo@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2249. Follow @malenacarollo.