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The New Financial Scam Driving Workers Deep Into Debt

There's a new game in town: workplace loans, which should really be called company rip-offs.

If you can lure people into borrowing then you own them, sometimes literally—it’s a game as old as money itself.  

Regular people don’t know much about money, loan terms or the trap of debt-slavery. This enables predators to dangle loans in front of desperate people and entrap them into various forms of financial and even actual servitude. Again and again schemes and scams pop up that trick people into borrowing. Of course, we all know how the credit-card trap has ensnared millions. Car loan terms have gone from two to three and now as long as five or even six years because people think a lower monthly payment is a good thing. In recent years we’ve seen “subprime” mortgages and payday lenders entrap borrowers. Now there is a new predatory lending scheme in operation called “workplace loans.” Keep an eye out for this, it is just one more way for the financial industry to lure workers into debt slavery.

But also keep an eye out for a different form of workplace loan that can actually help employees.

Yesterday: Payday Loans

These are tough times for a large number of people. By some estimates as many as 76% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck some or all of the time, if this is defined as not having enough savings to live for at least six months. Some surveys show that 40% of Americans have less than $500 in savings. This means they are one car breakdown away from needing an emergency loan.

These are the very people who are poor credit risks and cannot get loans from the usual sources. So they often turn to “payday lenders.” Payday loans can have an interest rate up to 500%. They charge very high interest rates for short-term loans, often trapping people into a vicious debt spiral, borrowing to pay the interest on earlier borrowing while money for food and rent disappears. These lenders charge 15% or more for a two-week loan. That’s not 15% per year, that’s 15% for two weeks.

The combination of this huge portion of Americans living on the edge, and few lending sources available, the predatory payday loan industry was at one point said to have more payday loan outlets than McDonald's and Burger King outlets combined.

Fortunately the payday loan industry is coming under scrutiny. States are cracking down on the predatory industry, the Justice Department has been issuing subpoenas looking for illegal or deceptive schemes, and in November the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced its first action against a payday lender. The lender, Cash America International, Inc. will pay back up to $14 million to approximately 14,000 people for robo-signing practices related to debt collection lawsuits and will pay a $5 million penalty for the violations and other misconduct.

Today: Workplace Loans

Now there is a new game in town. It’s called “workplace loans” but in many cases they should be called “company store loans.” You may have heard stories about the old days when companies would set up company towns with company stores. You may have heard the song "16 Tons," first recorded by Merle Travis in 1946, with its line, “You load 16 tons and what do you get, another day older and deeper in debt, St. Peter don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store.”

When employees are at your mercy, as in times of high unemployment, there are plenty of ways to take advantage of them. Coal mining companies in particular were notorious for running company stores.

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