Scott Tuckers payday-loan scam spotlights industry-wide lending abuses

You can learn a lot about payday lending from the story of Scott Tucker, the race car driver who stands accused, along with his attorney, of bilking 4.5 million people out of a combined $2 billion.

Their criminal indictment, announced by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, grew out of an investigation launched by the Federal Trade Commission in 2012. Hundreds of pages of court documents from that inquiry have now been unsealed, thanks to a lawsuit filed by Public Justice on behalf of Americans for Financial Reform. As a result, we know a great deal about how Tucker’s operation worked.

People who borrowed money from his companies, which had names like Ameriloan, OneClickCash and USFastCash, were led to believe they would be responsible for repaying the principal plus a one-time finance charge of 30 percent. But as the FTC alleged and a federal court in Nevada subsequently agreed, borrowers got routed onto a much costlier path once they had signed over access to their bank accounts.

Technically, there were three repayment options. That fact, however – along with the procedure for choosing one over another – was buried in a tangle of tiny hyperlinks and check-boxes on the company’s website. And customer service representatives were explicitly told not to explain any of this clearly.

Nearly all borrowers, like it or not, were defaulted into the so-called renewal option, which began with a series of “renewal fees” costing 30 percent of the original amount borrowed. With each fee payment, borrowers would incur another renewal fee of 30 percent of the principal. Four payments later, they would wake up to discover that they had paid back 120 percent of the original amount – without putting a dent in the balance. By these means, someone who had taken out a $500 loan would end up making nearly $2,000 in payments!

The unsealed documents include transcripts of angry phone calls in which borrowers either refused to continue paying or said they couldn’t afford to do so. Tucker’s companies responded, as the transcripts show, with a variety of illegal loan collection practices, including warnings that nonpayment could lead to arrest.

Unsurprisingly, there were many complaints and at least a few investigations at the state level. For years, however, Tucker’s companies successfully hid behind an assertion of tribal sovereignty based on their false claim to have turned over ownership and management powers to tribal governments in Oklahoma. Courts in several states with strong usury laws dismissed enforcement actions against Tucker’s companies based on the sham tribal-sovereignty claim. In fact, the documents reveal, the tribes received only a tiny portion of the companies’ revenues for letting Tucker make use of their sovereignty, while Tucker kept close reins on the lending capital, staff and management.

Some aspects of the case were particular to Tucker’s companies. It is certainly not every payday lender who uses the money made by fleecing people to finance a sportscar racing career. But in much of what Tucker is alleged to have done, he was drawing on the basic payday industry playbook of loanshark-style fees and rates, bait-and-switch marketing, automatic bank withdrawals and convoluted schemes to avoid state laws.

The standard payday loan is marketed as a one-time quick fix for those facing a cash crunch. But the typical borrower ends up in a very long series of loans – 10 on average – incurring extra fees each time out. Car-title and payday installment lenders play variations on the same theme: A high proportion of their customers remain on the hook for months or even years, making payment after payment without significantly diminishing the principal. And these are the borrowers who make the loans profitable: We are talking about an industry, in other words, whose business model is to trap people in a cycle of debt.

Tucker has been put out of business – that is one big thing that sets him apart. Thanks to the efforts of the FTC and the Department of Justice, with investigative assistance from the IRS and the FBI, he faces fraud and racketeering charges carrying penalties as long as 20 years in prison.

The industry as a whole, however, is going strong across much of the country. Although these loans are prohibited or highly restricted in about a third of states, there are more payday lending storefronts in the U.S. than Starbucks and McDonalds combined. Triple-digit-interest consumer lenders are a particularly big presence in low-income communities and communities of color – communities still reeling, in many cases, from the financial crisis and aftereffects of a wave of high-cost, booby-trapped mortgage loans.

But the problem is not a hopeless one. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the agency conceived by Sen. Elizabeth Warren and created by the Dodd-Frank reforms of 2010, has already drafted and begun to implement rules to guard against a resurgence of deceptive and unsustainable mortgage lending. Now it is working on rules to rein in the abusive practices of payday, car-title and payday installment lending.

The key principle should be the same: Small-dollar consumer lenders, like mortgage lenders, should be required to issue sound and straightforward loans that people can afford to repay.

Across party lines, Americans support that simple concept. By insisting on a strong ability-to-repay standard, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau can help bring an end to a quarter-century-long wave of debt-trap.

—  Gynnie Robnett and Gabriel Hopkins

Gynnie Robnett directs the payday lending campaign at Americans for Financial Reform.

Gabriel Hopkins is the Thornton-Robb Attorney at Public Justice.

This post was originally published on US News.com.

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