By Paul Kiel, ProPublica, and Mitchell Hartman, Marketplace
This story was co-produced with Marketplace. Listen to their coverage.
Seven years after Congress banned payday-loan companies from charging exorbitant interest rates to service members, many of the nation's military bases are surrounded by storefront lenders who charge high annual percentage rates, sometimes exceeding 400 percent.
The Military Lending Act sought to protect service members and their families from predatory loans. But in practice, the law has defined the types of covered loans so narrowly that it's been all too easy for lenders to circumvent it.
"We have to revisit this," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who chairs the defense appropriations subcommittee and is the Senate's second-ranking Democrat. "If we're serious about protecting military families from exploitation, this law has to be a lot tighter."
Members of the military can lose their security clearances for falling into debt. As a result, experts say, service members often avoid taking financial problems to their superior officers and instead resort to high-cost loans they don't fully understand.
The Department of Defense, which defines which loans the Military Lending Act covers, has begun a process to review the law, said Marcus Beauregard, chief of the Pentagon's state liaison office.
The act mainly targets two products: payday loans, usually two-week loans with annual percentage rates often above 400 percent, and auto-title loans, typically one-month loans with rates above 100 percent and secured by the borrower's vehicle. The law caps all covered loans at a 36 percent annual rate.
That limit "did do a great deal of good on the products that it covered," Holly Petraeus, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's head of service member affairs, said in an interview. "But there are a lot of products that it doesn't cover."
Representatives from payday and other high-cost lenders said they follow the law. Some defended the proliferation of new products as helpful to consumers.
A 400 Percent Loan
In June 2011, when Levon Tyler, a 37-year-old staff sergeant in the Marines, walked into Smart Choice Title Loans in Columbia, S.C., it was the first time he'd ever gone to such a place, he said. But his bills were mounting. He needed cash right away.
Smart Choice agreed to lend him $1,600. In return, Tyler handed over the title to his 1998 Ford SUV and a copy of his keys. Tyler recalled the saleswoman telling him he'd probably be able to pay off the loan in a year. He said he did not scrutinize the contract he signed that day.
If he had, Tyler would have seen that in exchange for that $1,600, he'd agreed to pay a total of $17,228 over two and a half years. The loan's annual percentage rate, which includes interest and fees, was 400 percent.
Tyler said he provided his military ID when he got the loan. But even with an annual rate as high as a typical payday loan, the Military Lending Act didn't apply. The law limits the interest rate of title loans — but only those that have a term of six months or less.
In South Carolina, almost no loans fit that definition, said Sue Berkowitz, director of the nonprofit South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center. The reason? Ten years ago, the state legislature passed consumer protections for short-term auto-title loans. In response, lenders simply lengthened the duration of their loans.
Today, plenty of payday and auto-title lenders cluster near Fort Jackson, an army base in Columbia, legally peddling high-cost loans to the more than 36,000 soldiers who receive basic training there each year.
Tyler's loan showcases other examples of lenders' ingenuity. Attached to his contract was an addendum that offered a "Summer Fun Program Payoff." While the loan's official term was 32 months, putting it outside both South Carolina's regulations and the Military Lending Act, the "Summer Fun" option allowed Tyler to pay off the loan in a single month. If he did so, he'd pay an annual rate of 110 percent, the addendum said.
Michael Agostinelli, the chief executive of Smart Choice's parent company, American Life Enterprises, told ProPublica he wants his customers to pay off their loans early. "They're meant to be short-term loans," he said. He also said that customers who pay on time get "a big discount." In Tyler's case, he would have paid an annual rate of 192 percent if he had made all his payments on time.
But Tyler fell behind after only a couple of payments. Less than five months after he took out the loan, a repo company came in the middle of the night to take his car. Three weeks later, it was sold at auction.
"This was something new, and I will never do it again," Tyler said. "I don't care what type of spot I get in."
American Life Enterprises companies operate nine title-lending branches in Nevada and South Carolina. Agostinelli said loans to members of the military are rare for his companies but that service members might go to a title lender for the same reason anybody else does: They need money immediately and discreetly.
Loans similar to the one Tyler took out are broadly and legally available from stores and over the Internet. QC Holdings, Advance America, Cash America and Ace Cash Express — all among the country's largest payday lenders — offer loans that fall outside the definitions of the Military Lending Act, which defined a payday loan as lasting three months or less.
The annual rates can be sky high, such as those offered by Ace Cash Express in Texas, where a five-month loan for $400 comes with an annual rate of 585 percent, according to the company's website.
Ace Cash is among a number of payday lenders just outside the gates of Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, and it has four stores within three miles of Fort Hood in Texas.
A 2012 report on the Military Lending Act by the Consumer Federation of America found there had been no drop in the number of payday lenders around Fort Hood since the 2006 law went into effect.
Amy Cantu of the Community Financial Services Association of America, which represents the payday industry, said payday lenders are careful to screen out service members for their short-term products. But she acknowledged that payday companies may provide soldiers and their families with other types of loans. "We welcome more products in the market," she said of the trend of payday lenders increasingly offering longer-term loans. "Options are good for consumers."
Earned a Purple Heart, Lost a Car
Some lenders apparently haven't bothered to change their loan products in response to the law.
A 2011 federal class-action suit filed in Georgia's Middle District alleges that one of the largest auto-title lenders in the country, Community Loans of America, has been flouting the law. The suit names among its plaintiffs three soldiers who took out what appeared to be classic title loans. All agreed to pay an annual rate of around 150 percent for a 30-day loan. All had trouble repaying, according to the suit. One, an Army staff sergeant and Purple Heart recipient, lost his car. The other two managed to pay interest but almost none of the principal on their loans for several months.
The company was fully aware that its customers were soldiers, because they presented their military identifications, said Roy Barnes, a former governor of Georgia who is representing the plaintiffs.
Community Loans, which boasts more than 900 locations nationwide, argued in court that the transactions were not covered by the Military Lending Act because they weren't loans but sales. Here's how Community Loans said the transaction worked: The soldiers sold their vehicles to the company while retaining the option to buy back the cars — for a higher price. In early 2012, the judge rejected that argument. The case is ongoing.
Community Loans, which did not respond to numerous calls and emails, has been making loans to service members through businesses with various names.
Leading up to the gates of Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga., Victory Drive is crowded with lenders. Among them is Georgia Auto Pawn, a Community Loans of America storefront where one of the plaintiffs in the class action, an Army master sergeant, took out his loan.
Just another half-mile down the road is a lender advertising "Signature Loans for the Military." The lender goes by the name of Title Credit Finance, but the parent company is Community Finance and Loans, which shares the same corporate address as Community Loans of America.
A billboard for Title Credit Finance promises to rescue borrowers: Showing a picture of a hamster on a wheel, it says, "Avoid the title pawn treadmill," referring to customers who get caught paying only interest month after month.
Title Credit Finance offers installment loans, a product which, as the company advertises, does seem to provide "CASH NOW The Smart Way" — at least when compared to a title loan. Interest rates tend to be lower — though still typically well above 36 percent. And instead of simply paying interest month upon month, the borrower pays down the loan's principal over time.
But the product comes with traps of its own. Installment lenders often load the loans with insurance products that can double the cost, and the companies thrive by persuading borrowers to use the product like a credit card. Customers can refinance the loan after only a few payments and borrow a little more. But those extra dollars typically come at a far higher cost than the annual rate listed on the contract.
At TitleMax, a title-lender with more than 700 stores in 12 states, soldiers who inquire about a title loan are directed to InstaLoan, TitleMax's sister company, which provides installment loans, said Suzanne Donovan of the nonprofit Step Up Savannah. A $2,475 installment loan made to a soldier at Fort Stewart near Savannah, Ga., in 2011 and reviewed by ProPublica, for example, carried a 43 percent annual rate over 14 months — but that rate effectively soared to 80 percent when the insurance products were included. To get the loan, the soldier surrendered the title to his car. TMX Finance, the parent company of both TitleMax and InstaLoan, did not respond to multiple calls and emails seeking comment.
Another lender on Victory Drive is the publicly traded World Finance, one of the country's largest installment lenders, with a market capitalization of about $1 billion and more than 1,000 stores around the country. World was the subject of an investigation by ProPublica and Marketplace earlier this week. Of World's loans, about 5 percent, approximately 40,000 loans, are made to service members or their families, according to the company. Active-duty military personnel and their dependents comprise less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Defense Department.
Bill Himpler, the executive vice president of the American Financial Services Association, which represents installment lenders, said the industry's products had been rightfully excluded from the Military Lending Act. The Pentagon had done a good job preserving soldiers' access to affordable credit, he said, and only "tweaking the regulations here or there to tighten them up" was necessary.
The Commander and the Collectors
It's not known how many service members have high-priced loans. The Pentagon says it intends to conduct a survey on the matter soon and issue a report by the end of the year.
But some commanders, such as Capt. Brandon Archuleta, say that dealing with soldiers' financial problems is simply part of being an officer. Archuleta, who has commanded soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, recalled fielding numerous calls from lenders trying to track down soldiers who were delinquent on debts.
"In the last 12 years we've seen military officers as war fighters, we've seen them as diplomats, we've seen them as scholars," Archuleta said. "But what we don't see is the officer as social worker, financial adviser and personal caregiver."
While some soldiers seek help from their superior officers, many don't. That's because debt troubles can result in soldiers losing their security clearance.
"Instead of trying to negotiate this with their command structure, the service member will typically end up refinancing," said Michael Hayden, director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America and a retired Air Force colonel. "It'll typically start out with some type of small crisis. And then the real crisis is just how you get that loan paid off."
Soldiers who hide their debt often forego the military's special aid options. Army Emergency Relief and the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society offer zero-interest loans. But in seeking that help, a soldier risks alerting the commanding officer to his or her troubles, particularly if the sum needed is a large one.
Russell Putnam, a legal-assistance attorney at Fort Stewart, says he often finds himself making a simple argument to soldiers: "A zero percent loan sure as heck beats a 36 percent plus or a 25 percent plus loan."
(Originally posted at Pro Publica)