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The 182 Percent Loan? How Installment Lenders Trap Borrowers

A racket that has caused low-income borrowers a world of hurt.
 
 
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One day late last year, Katrina Sutton stood at a gas pump outside Atlanta and swiped her debit card. Insufficient funds. But that couldn't be. She'd been careful to wait until her $270 paycheck from Walmart had hit her account. The money wasn't there? It was all she had. And without gas, she couldn't get to work.

She tried not to panic, but after she called her card company, she couldn't help it. Her funds had been frozen, she was told, by World Finance.

Sutton lives in Georgia, a state that has banned payday loans. But World Finance, a billion-dollar company, peddles installment loans, a product that often drives borrowers into a similar quagmire of debt.

World is one of America's largest providers of installment loans, an industry that thrives in at least 19 states, mostly in the South and Midwest; claims more than 10 million customers; and has survived recent efforts by lawmakers to curtail lending that carries exorbitant interest rates and fees. Installment lenders were not included in a 2006 federal law that banned selling some classes of loans with an annual percentage rate above 36 percent to service members — so the companies often set up shop near the gates of military bases, offering loans with annual rates that can soar into the triple digits.

Installment loans have been around for decades. While payday loans are usually due in a matter of weeks, installment loans get paid back in installments over time — a few months to a few years. Both types of loans are marketed to the same low-income consumers, and both can trap borrowers in a cycle of recurring, expensive loans.

Installment loans can be deceptively expensive. World and its competitors push customers to renew their loans over and over again, transforming what the industry touts as a safe, responsible way to pay down debt into a kind of credit card with sky-high annual rates, sometimes more than 200 percent.

And when state laws force the companies to charge lower rates, they often sell borrowers unnecessary insurance products that rarely provide any benefit to the consumer but can effectively double the loan's annual percentage rate. Former World employees say they were instructed not to tell customers the insurance is voluntary.

When borrowers fall behind on payments, calls to the customer's home and workplace, as well as to friends and relatives, are routine. Next come home visits. And as Sutton and many others have discovered, World's threats to sue its customers are often real.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the new federal agency charged with overseeing consumer-finance products and services, has the power to sue nonbank lenders for violating federal laws. It could also make larger installment lenders subject to regular examinations, but it hasn't yet done so. Installment companies have supported Republican efforts to weaken the agency, echoing concerns raised by the lending industry as a whole.

The CFPB declined to comment on any potential rule-making or enforcement action.

Despite a customer base that might best be described as sub-subprime, World comfortably survived the financial crisis. Its stock, which trades on the Nasdaq under the company's corporate name, World Acceptance Corp., has nearly tripled in price in the last three years. The company services more than 800,000 customers at upward of 1,000 offices in 13 states. It also extends into Mexico, where it has about 120,000 customers.

In a written response to questions for this story, World argued that the company provides a valuable service for customers who might not otherwise qualify for credit. The loans are carefully underwritten to be affordable for borrowers, the company said, and since the loans involve set monthly payments, they come with a "built-in financial discipline."

 
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