Predatory lending impacting hundreds across Mid-South

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Short term lending.

Some see it as a quick-fix to a small money problem. But is quick-cash a fast track into a cycle of debt?

FOX13 Consumer Investigates found out that Tennessee is home to the most predatory lenders in the nation. Businesses that offer you money that you agree to pay back. But at what cost?

We learned that predatory lending comes in many shapes.

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Wanda Coleman's nightmare began not long after she walked into a local car dealership.

"This woman told me, you have good credit. You can afford anything you want! No, I can't either," the 91-year-old explained in her Hickory Hill home.

Wanda added, despite her protests, the pressure continued.

"And they kept me there for 6 1/2 hours. Sign this, sign this, sign this. I didn't even know what I was signing," she explained.

She wound up signing for a $36,000 car loan. Wanda took the car back about a week later.

But she had to pay to get her old car back, and is left owing thousands for a loan she never wanted and as for the down payment?  "They got $3,000 out of my checking account, and I want it back."

Ms. Colman turned to Webb Brewer, a Memphis attorney who has written legislation concerning predatory lending in the past.

"It was over-reaching and predatory," Brewer said of Coleman’s case.

He added, "In reality, the monthly payments were half of her monthly income."  $500 dollars per month in fact.

We aren't naming the car dealership or the lender because of pending litigation.

This story prompted FOX13 to dig deeper into predatory lending. We found a report from the Metro Ideas Project of Tennessee that says the state is home to the most predatory lenders in the country.

There are 1,200+ identified in the paper issued January 1, 2018. 232 in Shelby County alone.

Predatory lending is defined as any lending practice that imposes unfair or abusive loan terms. Brewer points to one arm of the industry in particular.

"The auto title pledge loans are the worst.

"They carry an APR of almost 400%.  A lot of people have called it legalized loan sharking," Brewer told FOX13 Consumer Investigates.

So we reached out to the Community Financial Services Association, which represents payday lenders and auto title loan lenders across the country.

"Loan sharking is what happens when we don't exist," Jabo Covert, a Sr. Vice President of Check Into Cash and a CFSA member said in response to Brewer.

"There's no way under Tennessee law that someone got to 400% interest," Covert added. He’s right. Unlike many states, Tennessee regulations don’t allow lenders at this level to charge interest on their loans.  But according to the Centers for Responsible Lending, here’s how the math inflates.

In a state where interest is allowed, the average title loan is taken for $1000. It's "renewed" 8 times within a 10-month period as 25% interest and the lender fees compile each time. In the end, the borrower could pay up to 3 times the original loan amount.

Covert justifies the fees in the check cashing and payday loan arm of the industry, pointing out that the loans are unsecured.

He said the average loan is for $300.  The fee for that loan is $52.94.  Covert calls this equitable and calls this line of business *vital* for those who can't qualify for a loan while adding that there are over 1,700 pages of regulations his business has to follow.

“We are a safe legal, regulated option for customers who need short term financing. If we didn't exist, people would go behind the gas station and get a loan for much worse terms. That's loan sharking,” Covert added.  The industry is worth $3.5 billion annually.

Our research of the Centers for Responsible Lending found that 80% of all pay-day loans are taken out within two weeks of a previous pay-day loan, on an average of 8 times per year, perpetuating the cycle of "extended indebtedness.”

Facts backed up by “Robert” of Memphis. “I got into a payday loan once. Thought I would be able to pay it back, and that would be in the end of it, but I wound up paying about $1,100 for that $250 loan because I kept having to go back for more. I didn’t think I’d ever get out!” he added.  He did, but it took him 14 months.

Joda Thongnopnua, the executive director the author of the Metro Ideas Project, admits that people with bad credit have almost no options. He wants to change that and the face of small loan lending in the state with a three-pronged approach.

Warn: Leverage laws allowing municipalities to regulate signage and require predatory lenders to post plainspoken warnings on all exterior signage (e.g., billboards, exterior signs, posters) about the dangers and risks associated with their services.  Permit: Require an additional local permit to operate a predatory lending establishment in city boundaries. Lend: Create an alternative, community-based, and nonprofit lending institution under the same legal structure utilized by predatory lenders, featuring affordable rates, transparent fees, and honest underwriting practices.

Metro Ideas Project of Tennessee study on Predatory Lending: