A D.C. chain called Community Credit Union Services has been offering what it describes as savings accounts and loans, although the firm has no credit union charter and is not federally insured by the agency that regulates such operations.
The firm, which has been in business for more than eight years and has offices in Anacostia, Shaw and Capitol Hill, advertises check cashing, food stamps, D.C. lottery tickets, money orders, tax advice and Christmas accounts, in addition to its banking services.
There is no indication that Community Credit Union Services is unable to pay its depositors, most of whom are low-income District residents, according to the firm's articles of incorporation.
Officials of the National Credit Union Administration, which oversees and insures federal credit unions, said Community Credit Union Services has no federal or state charter and is not insured by the agency.
Prominently displayed on the teller window of the firm's Shaw office at 1722 Seventh St. NW is a yellow sign that says in bold black letters that deposits are federally insured up to $100,000 per customer account by NCUA.
Allan Meltzer, NCUA's associate general counsel for litigation, said he was unaware of Community Credit Union's operations. Meltzer said NCUA would immediately begin an investigation into the firm's activities and would refer the case to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Shirley A. Grasty, the firm's treasurer, said in an interview yesterday that Community Credit Union is not a federally chartered credit union and does not have federal deposit insurance. Of the sign taped to the window at the Shaw office, she said, "There used to be an old credit union there. It could be a sticker left over."
"We've never felt we were violating any law," Grasty said.
Federal banking regulators say they are extremely concerned about institutions that are advertising themselves as safe, federally insured banks or credit unions when they are not chartered. It is a criminal offense to falsely advertise federal deposit insurance.
Chartered institutions are reviewed regularly by regulators to ensure they are operating safely and soundly. In addition, the institutions are required to keep certain levels of cash and assets on hand to protect depositors. Firms offering banking services without permission from local or federal authorities are operating in a regulatory vacuum.
The failure of Latin Investment Corp., which closed Nov. 29 amid financial difficulties, brought to light what one official called a "legislative black hole" that has allowed D.C. firms to offer banking services without permission and oversight.
Latin Investment, which catered to Spanish-speaking immigrants, served as many as 3,500 customers, who now stand to lose at least $6.8 million in deposits with the firm. A second business, Casa Latinoamericana de Inversiones, offered similar banking services and shut its doors shortly after Latin Investment closed. Casa is under investigation by the D.C. Office of Banking and Financial Institutions.
Grasty estimated that Community Credit Union has 300 members, who have deposited more than $100,000. According to the firm's flier, an account may be started with a minimum of $30, part of which is not refundable. A 5 percent annual "dividend" is paid on all accounts over $100. Depositors must have a picture identification card and a Social Security number to open an account. Neither Casa nor Latin Investment required formal identification from their customers.
Community Credit Union's fliers state that loans are available and a teller in the Shaw office said loans are made at 18 percent interest after six months of membership. Grasty denied that the firm made loans, saying it offers only loan referral services.
"If a person wants a loan, we refer them to other credit unions," she said.
Joseph Lopes, deputy general counsel for the D.C. banking office, said he also would initiate an investigation into Community Credit Union Services. Under emergency legislation passed by the D.C. Council on Dec. 18, Lopes could force the firm to provide information about its services, and he could shut it down if his office finds that it is offering banking services without a charter.
All legitimate credit unions in the District are federally chartered and overseen by NCUA. The District has no authority to grant state charters to credit unions or to oversee their operations.
Grasty said her firm was not a credit union. "We've always thought of ourselves as an investment club," she said.
Latin Investment called itself an investment club, prompting an investigation into its operations by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which recently filed a civil suit accusing Latin Investment's owners of falsely selling securities.
Community Credit Union states in its literature that it is "affiliated" with the American Federation of Community Credit Unions and the District of Columbia Credit Union League, two local trade associations representing federally chartered credit unions.
Sara Turner, of the D.C. Credit Union League, said she was aware of Community Credit Union, but that she believed that it offered only food stamps and check cashing. She said it is not a member of the league, because "it is not a real credit union."
The American Federation of Community Credit Unions, which represented fully chartered community credit unions in the city, was dissolved last year. Turner said Grasty was once its director.