10/01/15: [Tampa Bay Times Article] Tax collectors warn of online tag renewal company’s extra fees

[Tampa Bay Times Article] 

Tax collectors warn of online tag renewal company’s extra fees

by John Romano, Times Columnist

Wednesday, September 30, 2015 7:16pm

Source: Click here to read the article on the Tampa Bay Times website.

She could live without the money. It wasn’t that big of a deal.

What made Lilyan Dayton angry was the cost to her pride.

She had not been robbed, but she felt like she had been duped. And in some ways, that was far worse.

The 86-year-old New Port Richey resident is one of a growing number of people who have paid nearly double the cost of their vehicle registration fees because they have unknowingly used a third-party vendor to order their tags online.

“I’ve always been real proud of myself that I’ve never been taken in by something like this before,” Dayton said. “I guess I deserve it for being careless, but … what a ripoff. I’m just so mad at myself.”

Unfortunately, she is not alone. According to county tax collectors around Florida, more and more people have paid unnecessary fees while renewing their vehicle tags because they have mistakenly thought a for-profit website was the state’s official site.

“It’s not illegal,” said Pinellas County Tax Collector Diane Nelson, “but it’s very misleading.”

Here’s the issue:

People who use a search engine — such as Google — to find their local tax collector’s website will often click on the first link that appears in the search results. In many cases, that link is not the county or state site, but a paid advertisement from etagsdirect.com.

The site has a disclaimer that clearly specifies it is not affiliated with a government agency, but it’s easy to ignore if you immediately go to the big, green START button next to the empty box asking for your ZIP code.

“It’s very, very official looking,” Dayton said.

The site also lists its service charges after you input your information, but it does not include the actual cost of the new registration. That charge is “to be determined.”

Since additional fees assessed by etagsdirect.com are in the same price range as the registration fee itself, it’s possible to confuse those service charges as the total bill.

In Dayton’s case, the county-issued registration bill she got in the mail said she owed $36.10. When she finished inputting her data online, the bill was listed at $28.85 plus state registration tax and fees. It was easy to assume those additional fees would bring the total bill up to $36.10.

Instead, the entire $36.10 was tacked on to that $28.85 in service charges.

“It’s laughable that they’re allowed to do this and get away with it,” said Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano. “They are doing nothing more than typing in the same information the person gives them, and then turn around and charge an extra $25 or $30.

“It’s very disturbing.”

Etagsdirect.com has been in business only since last year, but it has already caught the attention of county officials across the state. Tax collectors in Orange, Polk and Palm Beach counties have issued news releases warning residents about the fees.

Hillsborough County Tax Collector Doug Belden said he contacted statewide prosecutor Nick Cox about etagsdirect.com earlier this year but was told it did not appear the website was breaking any laws because it clearly identified itself as a private entity.

When contacted Wednesday, Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office confirmed it has an active consumer protection investigation under way.

A call to Aaron Cohen, a lawyer listed as an officer for etagsdirect.com, was not returned Wednesday. An email to the website also went unanswered. In April, Cohen defended the extra cost in a Palm Beach Poststory, saying the company provides customer service if problems arise with online renewals.

Meanwhile, tax collectors are doing what they can to get the word out for people who renew online. Nelson said she is ordering envelopes that will more clearly direct people to type in the URL listed for the tax collector’s office instead of using a Google search.

Fasano wrote an op-ed in July to warn residents.

They also point out that residents can use enclosed envelopes to renew tags through the mail, or go to an actual tax office and do it in person.

While tax offices have fielded a comparatively small number of angry calls about this — a handful every month in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas — there is no easy way of telling how many people have simply paid the extra $25 to $35 without complaint.

“If you think about every county in the state,” Belden said, “that extra $30 is going to add up pretty quickly.”

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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