Consumer Debt in Florida

Florida consumers are among the most indebted individuals in the country. They have higher-than-average amounts of credit card debt, as well as large mortgages, auto loans and student loans. And numerous factors are working against their recovery.

State laws basically serve to reiterate federal ones rather than to provide further consumer rights and do not provide credit card protections or safeguards against identity theft. Additionally, unemployment rates far surpass those on the national level. Florida’s unemployment rate peaked in early 2010 at 11.4 percent, and it took until the first months of 2012 for it to drop below 10 percent.

Such fundamental problems have led to an unprecedented number of bankruptcies in the state, as well as low credit scores.

Credit Card Debt in Florida

Floridians with credit card debt carried an average of $6,658 on their cards in 2011. This was down significantly from $7,726 in July 2010. Still, Florida’s average credit card debt remains slightly above the national average of $6,576, according to a 2012 study.

Another study stated that Jacksonville residents had the second-highest credit card debt in the country. Jacksonville consumers had an average balance of $5,115 on their cards, or about 22 percent more than the national average. (The 2011 study conducted by credit bureau Experian calculated averages based on the number of consumers in total rather than the number of consumers with credit card debt. Because of this, averages in the Experian study appear lower, with the average U.S. consumer carrying $4,200 in credit card debt.)

Tallahassee and Miami were also on the list of the 25 cities with the most credit card debt. Tallahassee ranked 14th, with consumers carrying about $4,600 on their credit cards. Miami consumers carried an average of $4,555 on their cards, ranking the city 23rd.

Consumer Debt in Florida

Floridians struggle with debt in the form of mortgages, student loans and auto loans, in addition to their revolving debts like credit card debt.

While mortgage balances dropped, Florida homeowners are still suffering from the recent market crash. Student loan debts, on the other hand, continue to rise but are still below national averages. These debts are in addition to auto loan debts, which have an average outstanding balance of $15,500.

Mortgage Debt

The average Florida mortgage dropped from $174,309 in mid-2010 to $163,724 in December 2011, a 6 percent decrease.  The drop doesn’t necessarily indicate that homeowners are paying down their mortgages; it could reflect an increase in foreclosures.

Despite some minor improvement, the Florida mortgage situation is still rated the worst in the country. After 2007′s housing market crash, Florida homes lost 48 percent of their value. As a lingering result, 44 percent of Florida mortgages were still underwater in May 2012. That means that 44 percent of the state’s mortgage debts had greater balances than what the mortgaged homes were actually worth.

Delinquencies have similarly skyrocketed. At the end of 2005, only 0.64 percent of the state’s mortgages were more than 90 days past due. Less than seven years later, this number was 28 times higher. In May 2012, more than 18 percent of mortgages were at least 90 days overdue.

Student Loan Debt

Florida is home to three of the 10 largest universities in the country, based on undergraduate enrollment for the 2011-12 school year. The University of Central Florida, Florida International University and the University of Florida have undergraduate enrollment rates of more than 32,000 each, in part because they are among the most affordable public schools.

But in recent years, even the most frugal students have been unable to avoid debt. Undergraduate students at all three of these universities now graduate with average student loan debts upward of $16,000.

This is still lower than those who graduated from any Florida school in 2010 with student loans. Overall, 49 percent of Florida’s 2010 graduates had student loans, and the loans were for an average of $21,200.

Even higher is the average loan amount in the United States as a whole. Nationally, 2010 graduates with student loans had loan amounts of $25,250.

Bankruptcy

Bankruptcy statistics in Florida largely follow nationwide trends, with a few key differences.

Across the United States, personal bankruptcies reached an all-time high in 2005, when more than 2 million individuals and married couples filed bankruptcy. In Florida, the number peaked above 106,000 the same year.

The following year, the numbers were slashed because so many people had already filed bankruptcy. Nationwide, fewer than 600,000 personal bankruptcies were filed in 2006, less than a third of the previous year’s number. Florida’s figure dropped even more drastically. Only 24,700 Floridians filed bankruptcy, a fourth of the amount from the previous year.

After that, bankruptcy numbers in Florida and across the country crept back up until 2010 and then dropped slightly in 2011. However, the number of personal bankruptcies nationwide in 2010 was still 25 percent lower than 2005′s peak.

In Florida, the case was different. The number of bankruptcies rose so steeply between 2006 and 2010 that 2010′s number actually surpassed that of 2005 by about 2,000.

Overall, Florida has higher rates of personal bankruptcy than does the country as a whole. In 2010, one bankruptcy was filed in Florida for every 139 adults in the state. Across the country, there was one personal bankruptcy filing for every 155 adults.

Credit Scores in Florida

Credit scores in Florida continue to slightly trail those of the rest of the country. As credit scores fall across the country, Floridians’ scores remain a few points lower than average.

The average credit score in Florida was 654 in March 2012, compared to 660 nationwide. A year earlier, Floridians had a marginally higher average score of 657, still lower than the national average of 665 at that time. These scores were based on the FICO scoring model, which ranges from the worst score of 300 to the best of 850.

It should be noted that the Florida cities with the lowest credit scores — Jacksonville, Miami and Tallahassee — also have the highest credit card debts in the state. While a high level of debt does not necessarily hurt credit scores, it can signify other financial problems.

Most commonly, high levels of debt and low credit scores go hand-in-hand when borrowers cannot afford to repay their debts. This causes them to fall behind on payments, which directly harms credit scores.

Florida State Laws on Consumer Debt

The state of Florida has very few laws protecting consumers’ financial rights. And the laws it does have, such as the Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, do little beyond reinforcing federally granted rights. While federal laws are fairly comprehensive, the lack of state legislation can leave consumers vulnerable.

Statute of Limitations

Florida’s statute of limitations varies for different types of debts. For written contracts such as personal loans, the statute of limitations is five years. So, once this type of debt is more than five years past due, the lender can no longer sue in order to collect owed money. For other debts, the statute is shorter. Oral contracts and revolving accounts such as credit cards have a statute of limitations of four years.

Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act

Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act (FDUTPA) passed in 1973 to protect consumer rights. It was created with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Act in mind, the original law that created the FTC and protected against harmful trade practices.

Both the federal law and Florida’s version, dubbed the “Little FTC Act,” are vague in describing which practices are unlawful. Florida’s law states that unlawful acts include “unfair methods of competition, unconscionable acts or practices, and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce.”

The laws are meant to curb fraud and identity theft, but the legislation is intentionally ambiguous and open to interpretation by the courts. They have stirred controversy for decades because of this.

Gift Card Laws

Laws passed in 2010 revamped both federal and state laws regarding gift cards. Florida’s new laws are stricter than those of the federal government, thereby giving Florida consumers more protection.

Under Florida law, gift cards to specific stores never expire, whereas they can expire after five years in other states. This type of gift card also cannot have any fees, although federal law allows fees after the card is a year old.

Consumer Fraud and Identity Theft

Florida has the highest rate of identity theft in the country, with 21,600 cases of identity theft in 2010, or 115 complaints per 100,000 residents. This is up from 96 identity thefts per 100,000 people in 2005.

The state ranked almost as high for consumer fraud, a broader category that includes complaints such as scams and false advertising, in addition to identity theft. In 2010, Florida had nearly 71,000 cases of consumer fraud, or 377 per 100,000 individuals. This ranked it fifth in the country. Certain Florida cities had even higher rates. A 2010 study ranked 384 cities by consumer fraud rates and by identity theft rates.

These six Florida cities were ranked in the top 50 for fraud complaints:
  • Punta Gorda ranked 7th, with 558 complaints per 100,000 people.
  • Homosassa Springs, considered a micropolitan area rather than a metropolitan one, ranked 24th, with 483 fraud complaints per 100,000 residents.
  • Port Saint Lucie had 470 complaints per 100,000, ranking it 30th.
  • The area of Fort Walton Beach/Crestview/Destin was close behind, with 463 fraud incidents per 100,000 residents, ranking it 33rd.
  • The Sarasota/Bradenton/Venice area experienced 447 fraud occurrences per 100,000, ranking it 41st.
  • Panama City/Lynn Haven took 42nd, and each had 447 complaints per 100,000 residents.

Several Florida cities rank for the highest identity theft rates. Notably, these cities have little overlap with those in the top 50 for fraud.

These four Florida cities were ranked in the top 50 for identity theft:
  • The Miami/Fort Lauderdale/Pompano Beach area ranked highest in the country, with 184 identity thefts reported per 100,000 residents.
  • Port Saint Lucie was far behind, with 113 thefts for every 100,000 people, ranking it 35th.
  • The area of Orlando/Kissimmee ranked 41st, with 109 theft complaints per 100,000 people.
  • Lakeland ranked 45th, with 107 identity thefts for every 100,000 residents.
Bill Fay

Author

Bill Fay

Bill Fay is a journalism veteran with a nearly four-decade career in reporting and writing for daily newspapers, magazines and public officials. His focus at Debt.org is on frugal living, veterans' finances, retirement and tax advice. Bill can be reached at bfay@debt.org.

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