Payday loan disaster: A holiday splurge leads to a 651% interest rate

Petula Dvorak
Columnist March 8, 2012

It was holiday generosity that ultimately led Tyrone Newman to make a desperate deal.

And who could blame him?

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

He had been laid off and unemployed for a year, picking up the kids and doing laundry while his wife worked as a security guard. So you can understand why a 47-year-old guy would want to celebrate a bit after a good, long year at a solid job.

“I did it all up. I bought a tree this time. We got a turkey with all the trimmings,” Newman told me, his golden eyes growing wide as he explained the largess that was his undoing. “You know, you get happy, and you just start spending.”

All told, the maintenance man for a Northeast Washington apartment building went overboard by about $1,500.

Come January, he didn’t want his wife to know he’d spent that month’s mortgage payment on Christmas gifts. Stuck in traffic on the way to work, the radio spoke to him.

“Get cash NOW! Bad Credit? NO PROBLEM!” he remembered the booming voice on the radio speaking directly to him. He called. And within a couple of hours, $500 was in his bank account.

The interest rate? 651 percent.

But $500 wasn’t enough.

“No problem!” the payday lender on the phone told him. A sister company could get him more cash. Another call, another fast-talking storm of conditions and rates and restrictions. Newman gave them his bank account numbers, and, zap, $500 more was in his account.

He made the mortgage payment and was done.

Then the interest charges and “loan-renewal option” fees started piling up. The math was crushing.

If he took a year to pay down just one of those $500 loans, it would turn into about $6,000. Three loans and Newman’s relatively modest (by most American standards) Christmas would cost him $18,000.

This situation, sadly, is not that unusual among working people like Newman, who makes about $16.50 an hour. Their lives can be a Sisyphean struggle, unrelenting and utterly merciless when it comes to mistakes.

And guess what? The loans were totally legal!

“These triple-digit rates are worse than any loan sharks,” said Kathleen Day, spokeswoman for the Center for Responsible Lending, an advocacy group. “And they prey on the most vulnerable.”

In 2007, the District worked hard to put a stop to payday lenders in the city. Council members Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) sponsored a bill to run them out by capping interest rates — no more than 24 percent on a loan.

It passed 12 to 1, with Barry, oddly, being the only member to vote against it.

Similar legislation was enacted in Maryland, Virginia and about a dozen other states to put double-digit caps on the lenders. But Newman’s loans didn’t come from any of those places.

Because a 39 percent interest rate — as scary as that sounds to most folks — isn’t enough for payday lenders, most of these outfits turned to car title lending (they can take your ride) in Virginia, which was unregulated until the state enacted legislation in 2010.

If you need any more evidence that this industry targets the desperate, take a look at the Military Lending Act, passed by Congress in 2007, to protect military families from predatory lenders that set up shop near military bases.

But it turns out that getting rid of those hoary payday loan windows — the ones typically wedged between a liquor store with bulletproof plexiglass and a Chinese-and-subs takeout — is not enough.

At least one of Newman’s lenders was located on an Indian reservation in Michigan. (Just this week, the Federal Trade Commission expanded its case against a payday loan operation that was suing customers in a South Dakota tribal court.)

Go online, search for “payday loans,” and they’re all over the place; the only downside to the online model is that you can’t pick up some greasy lo mein after signing a deal with the devil.

But even more disturbing may be the reason that a coalition of about 250 consumer advocacy groups, along with the Center for Responsible Lending, addressed federal bank regulators last month.

Apparently, usury is just too delicious a business model to leave to the two-bit lenders. Looks like some of the banks are getting in on the act, too. Wells Fargo, Regions, U.S. Bank, Guaranty and Fifth Third Bank have all begun offering short-term loans at triple-digit rates, according to a letter sent by the advocacy groups.

You might even be able to live with the idea that a high fee for quick cash is tolerable when folks are cash-strapped. But it’s rarely a quick thing.

“These things are like spider webs. They’re sticky and difficult to get out of,” Day said of payday loans.

Indeed, whenever Newman tried to pay more than the monthly rate, the lenders encouraged him to keep his money.

“They were trying to keep that money going, to hold on to me and keep pumping cash out of me,” Newman said.

Newman got a bailout. His boss, who told me about the predicament, gave Newman the cash to pay off the loans and is working out a reasonable payback plan.

The $1,500 in loans cost Newman $450. The outcome wasn’t worse because he asked for help. He’s worried that lots of other folks who listen to his radio station will get suckered in.

“I’ve gotta tell people to stop. ‘Think. Slow down. Sit back. Don’t do it,’ ” Newman told me. “Those loans are addicting. I always wonder, ‘Who’s gonna give me a loan?’ and all of a sudden — Bam! — here’s someone who will.”

He looked down into his lemonade, poked the ice cubes around a bit with his straw and admitted this: “I didn’t tell my wife about the loans. And that’s all you gotta know. Anything you gotta hide from the wife has gotta be bad news.”

To read Petula Dvorak’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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