A payday-lending trade group yesterday announced a $10 million television and print advertising campaign imploring consumers to "always use payday advances responsibly," and said members would give struggling borrowers extra time to pay their debts.
The public relations push comes as officials in states such as South Carolina, New Mexico and Virginia consider new restrictions on payday advances, including interest-rate limits similar to a 36 percent cap on loans to military members approved by Congress in September.
A payday loan is a cash advance, backed by a borrower's next paycheck, that often carries fees of about $15 for every $100 borrowed. If the borrower does not repay the loan on time, the lender can withdraw the money owed from the borrower's bank account, or the borrower can roll the debt over until the next paycheck.
Consumer groups have criticized payday lenders for targeting low-income minorities, charging fees that add up to annual interest rates of more than 300 percent, and trapping borrowers in a cycle of debt. Industry officials counter that the loans are a source of credit for consumers unable to borrow money elsewhere. They say their fees reflect the cost of doing business, and that only a tiny percentage of borrowers are unable to repay their debts.
Under the program announced yesterday, members of the Community Financial Services Association of America, which represents such payday lenders as Advance America and Check 'n Go, agreed to give strapped borrowers at least one opportunity a year to extend the term of their loans by a few weeks at no extra charge, if borrowers notify them before the loans are due. The industry has backed similar plans in several states, including Virginia.
The group said it would hire an independent auditor to keep track of whether members keep their word. Those who do not will lose association membership, CFSA President Darrin Andersen said.
The trade group said 46 members of Congress signed a letter to Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, supporting its self-regulatory effort.
The group yesterday began airing an ad on BET, Food Network and other television networks, telling people to "please borrow only what you feel comfortable paying back when its due."
"Some of our customers didn't understand the intent of our product, that it's not a long-term financial solution," Andersen said.
Jean Ann Fox, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America, said the initiative does little to make payday loans less expensive or safer. She cited a study by the Center for Responsible Lending, an advocacy group in Durham, N.C., that found 90 percent of payday loans are made to borrowers who had at least five such loans in one year. "An extended payment plan on one of those loans one time a year doesn't help much," Fox said.