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Quick Cash, Toxic Debt: Part 1

dana wiggins

As long as people have used money, they’ve also been borrowing it. Now the internet is putting a new twist on the practice, as companies from across the world are lending money at very high interest rates in violation of Virginia law. 88.9 WCVE’s Michael Pope has the story in the first of a three part series, Quick Cash, Toxic Debt.

(sound of a telephone ringing)

Dana Wiggins: Predatory loan help hotline this is Dana.

The phone here at the Virginia Poverty Law Center in Richmond rings all day every day with people who are under water in debt. And Dana Wiggins, who answers the hotline, says no other kind of loan is causing more people more problems than internet loans. One day several months ago, she got a call from a guy named George. We’re withholding his name because he’s embarrassed that he took the loan, and he’s still fighting his way out of it.

George: You get in desperate situations and you do desperate things and when you’re in those you make the stupidest decisions in life.

In this case, the stupid decision was Googling for money to help his brother. He came across a site that offered quick cash. And George says he wasn’t really concerned about the terms of the loan because he believed his brother would be able to pay it off as soon as he was able to find work. But then ...

George: Then my car broke down or you miss a day of work or two because you’re sick, and then the payments get out of hand and then you just start robbing Peter to pay Paul.

In this case, robbing Peter to pay Paul meant borrowing more money to get himself out of the hole he had already dug.

George: When you do these, they sell your name and address to everybody and anybody. And I’ve gotten several phone calls from lenders that I’ve never even borrowed from or heard of and they’ve threatened to take me to jail and said they’ve lent me money and they didn’t. I know they didn’t. I don’t even know them. And they know my Social Security number. They know where I work. They know my name and address.

Jay Speer at the Virginia Poverty Law Center says what happened to George is common and troubling.

Jay Speer: You could be talking to somebody from anywhere in the world who will typically make you a loan at anywhere from 400% all the way up to 900% interest, if they offer money at all.

Speer says that many of these online operations don’t even loan money. They just collect information and make promises.

Speer: But What’s really happening is that somebody is gathering their information and then broadcasting it out to a number of different folks who buy the information, some of whom are lenders and some of whom are actually out and out scammers.

Scammers that are breaking the law, even the ones who do actually loan money. That’s because Virginia law sets a very strict limit for how much interest can be charged. That limit has some exemptions, very specific exemptions that have been written into the law for car-title lenders and payday lenders.

Speer: If you don’t meet any of those exemptions in the statute, then you’re still limited to 12%. And all these lenders are charging way over 12%. And so therefore under the Consumer Finance Act, these loans are void. They’re unenforceable. And they’re illegal under Virginia law.

Illegal for now. But internet lenders are trying to get the General Assembly to help them get a foot in the door. Last year, a company called OneMain approached Republican Delegate Terry Kilgore about legalizing internet lending in Virginia. Kilgore agreed and introduced legislation to do just that. He says these kinds of loan are a legitimate way for people to get access to money they might not otherwise have access to.

Republican Delegate Terry Kilgore: I don’t want to get between somebody and their money and somebody and what they want to do, that’s something that, as far as payday or title loans, I’ve not done that. If you want to borrow the money and that’s the last person you can borrow it from then, you know, you may be in a position where you can borrow the money.

But when Kilgore’s bill was considered in House committee, Ken Kinion of OneMain disagreed with the idea that his company should have a physical location in Virginia.

Ken Kinion: When you’re making loans over the internet for synergy purposes, it’s better to be done at a central location because it just comes through a wire in your home. So it would be prohibitively expensive for us to set up an internet location in each state.

Republican Delegate Greg Habeeb took issue with that.

Republican Delegate Greg Habeeb: I find it frankly a little bit suspicious that somebody says well we don’t want to set up an office in Virginia because man that’s cheap to do.

In the end, the committee killed the bill. Democratic Delegate Mark Keam was happy the bill died but displeased at what the episode represented.

Democratic Delegate Mark Keam: This is a classic example of how in Virginia at the state General Assembly, unfortunately, lobbyists and special interests come up with a business plan for themselves. They come to the government to get the government to endorse and approve their business plan and then they go out and do what they want to do.

(sound of phone ringing)

Back at the Virginia Poverty Law Center, Dana Wiggins is still answering the predatory hotline every day — taking call after call from people who say they have been victimized by internet lending scams. She says lawmakers should be careful to avoid allowing companies from across the world to loan money in Virginia without following the rules the General Assembly has set up over the years.

Wiggins: If you’re just going to open up the floodgates, why would any lender choose to be licensed and follow the rules in Virginia. Why wouldn’t they just operate from another state and just offer anything online?

She’s still working with George, the man who borrowed money to help his brother. He says he was surprised at how easy it was to borrow money online and how easy it was to fall into the trap.

George: It’s way too easy. Way too easy. Companies shouldn’t just make it that easy where they don’t even look to see if you can afford the payments. I don’t think they really even care if you can afford the payments.

He says he has a warning for lawmakers who are tempted to give the internet lenders what they want.

George: With no rules around internet lending, it’s like jumping into a tank of sharks. You don’t know what you’re getting into until you’re already deep into it.

Lawmakers on both sides of the issue acknowledge the internet lenders are just getting started because the technology is improving so rapidly and there’s so much money at stake. They’ll be back at again, if not this year, then next year or the year after that. The real question is what kind of requirements lawmakers are willing to impose … if they want to legalize lending money online.

For WCVE, I’m Michael Pope.