For five years, employees at Cash America, one of the country’s largest payday lenders, were told to stamp a lawyer’s signature on court documents used to sue customers for past-due debts.
This “robo-signing” helped the company improperly squeeze money out of at least 14,397 Americans, who are entitled to millions of dollars in restitution, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said Wednesday.
The government watchdog said it had reached a $19 million settlement with Cash America for those and other abusive practices — its first with a short-term, small-dollar lender.
The bureau also discovered instances of Cash America charging active-duty service members and their families more than 36 percent interest on payday loans in violation of the Military Lending Act, according to the enforcement order.
The Fort Worth-based company must pay up to $14 million to borrowers who were subject to faulty debt-collection lawsuits in Ohio from 2008 to January 2013. Cash America, a $1.8 billion publicly traded company, has repaid about $6 million to military borrowers and victims of robo-signing.
In addition, it stopped attempting to collect on debts that the CFPB identified as problematic and alerted the credit bureaus to the erroneous black mark on borrowers’ reports.
Cash America also must pay a $5 million civil penalty and develop better compliance-management systems, according to the order.
“This action should send several clear messages: First, robo-signing practices are illegal wherever they occur, and they need to stop — period,” CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in a conference call with reporters. “Second, violations of the Military Lending Act harm our service members and will be vigorously policed. Third, the bureau will detect and punish entities that withhold, destroy or hide information relevant to our exams.”
Problems at Cash America came to light when the bureau conducted its first exam of the company in 2012. Before the visit, examiners told the company to retain documents and call recordings for review. But bureau agents learned that employees were instructed to shred files and erase calls. Employees confessed that managers had also coached them on what to say to examiners, according to the compliant.
Despite Cash America’s evasive maneuvers, the complaint said, examiners unearthed a series of troubling findings. They learned that the company’s debt-collection subsidiary in Ohio, Cashland Financial Services, had been rapidly signing off on legal documents to obtain judgements against customers — a practice that was widely documented in foreclosure cases.
At another Cash America subsidiary, Enova Financial, CFPB officials found that employees were overcharging members of the military.
Cash America said it did not admit or deny wrongdoing as part of the settlement and had fully cooperated with CFPB’s probe.
“Now that we have completed the initial CFPB review process and entered into this settlement, we will continue to focus on serving our customers while working to develop additional compliance programs as required by the CFPB,” Daniel R. Feehan, the company’s chief executive, said in a statement. In addition to payday lending, Cash America is a major pawnshop chain, check-cashing business and installment lender.
Wednesday’s order against Cash America is part of a broader industry crackdown. State authorities have stepped up efforts to go after lenders that violate interest-rate caps, while federal prosecutors have launched investigations into similar violations.
The growing prevalence of payday lending, especially in the wake of the financial crisis, has alarmed lawmakers and advocacy groups. Payday loans carry high interest rates and balloon payments that can trap Americans in a cycle of debt, critics say. Industry groups argue that payday lending serves a need that is not being met by traditional banks.
The industry has been loosely regulated by a patchwork of state laws until the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law gave the CFPB enforcement and examination power. The agency is widely expected to write rules to govern the industry, but on Wednesday it declined to provide a time frame.