Understanding the SAFE Act

Payday lenders may seem to be everywhere, but they were not always there. The first payday stores opened in the early 1990s – a byproduct of the same anything-goes deregulatory mania that led to a wave of booby-trapped mortgages and the financial and economic meltdown of 2008.

Almost as soon as they appeared on the scene, faith leaders and consumer and civil rights advocates called for rules to rein in the abuses of an industry whose business model is to advertise a form of “help” that consistently makes things worse, trapping people in long-term high-cost debt and imposing more economic distress on communities.

After a quarter of a century, these efforts are making progress. Fourteen states have meaningful regulations and the first nationwide rules are being developed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the new agency established after the 2008 crisis to bring basic standards of fairness to the financial marketplace.

But the industry is also pressing ahead, employing new loan models and a battery of technological and legal ploys intended to skirt the rules, both existing and anticipated.

Senator Jeff Merkley D-Ore.), a longtime champion of consumer rights, has introduced legislation to address some of these evasive maneuvers. His Stopping Abuse and Fraud in Electronic Lending (SAFE) Act would make it easier to uphold the interest-rate caps and other measures taken by the states. Merkley’s bill would also bolster the effectiveness of the Consumer Bureau’s efforts to require payday-style consumer lenders to do what other lenders do: verify a borrower’s ability to repay before a loan can be issued.

One big problem, for the CFPB as well as the states, is the fact that more and more payday lenders now do business online. Some companies hide from view, using anonymous domain registrations and websites with no physical contact information. Others, while describing themselves as payday lenders, turn out to be “lead generators” who collect personal information and then auction it off to lenders and other marketers. It is very hard to take legal action against criminals who have encased themselves in online camouflage. It gets even harder when they claim to be doing business from overseas or from Native American reservations in order to assert tribal-sovereignty privileges.

Online or out on the street, the basic formula is the same. These lenders charge triple-digit interest rates (nearly 400% on average) and are prepared to issue a loan as long as they can gain access to someone’s bank account – regardless of whether the borrower can actually afford the loan. Their standard, in other words, is the ability to collect, not to repay. In fact, while the industry promotes its products as short-term loans, most of its profits come from people who remain on the hook for months at a stretch and often end up paying more in fees than they borrowed in the first place.

Those who borrow online face special perils. They are often required to provide personal and financial information in loan applications – data that may be bought and sold by unregulated lead generators, loan brokers, lenders, and others. In some cases, this information is used to defraud people two or three times over.

Senator Merkley’s bill seeks to address these problems in three ways – by helping consumers regain control of their own bank accounts; by establishing standards of transparency for online lenders; and by cracking down on lead generators and other third-party predators. More specifically, the SAFE Act would require banks and other lenders to abide by the rules of the states where they do business; prevent third parties from using remotely created checks (RCCs) to withdraw money without an account-holder’s express pre-authorization; prohibit overdraft fees on prepaid cards issued by payday lenders in order to gain access to consumers’ funds and pile on extra charges; and ban lead generators and anonymous lending.

The great majority of Americans, regardless of political party, favor strong action to end the scourge of abusive payday, car-title, and other high-cost, debt-trap consumer loans. By supporting the SAFE Act and standing up for the complementary efforts of the states and the CFPB, members of Congress can heed this loud, bipartisan call from their constituents.

— Gynnie Robnett

Robnett is Payday Campaign Director at Americans for Financial Reform. This piece was originally published on The Hill’s Congress Blog.

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