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Wednesday, March 12, 2008 01:39 am

Cashing in on payday loans

An interest rate of 400 percent should be called criminal

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Untitled Document The Bible tells us that Jesus drove the moneychangers out of the temple (for charging less, by the way, than we’re now assessed on our Visa and MasterCard bills). Credit-card rates of 20 percent or so are ridiculous — but what should we call an interest rate of 400 percent? “Rip-off” is too nice of a word. “Gouging” fits, but even it can’t convey the raw greed embodied in such a usurious rate for the use of money. Charging 400 percent should be called criminal, but lobbyists for the quick-cash industry have monkeywrenched state usury laws to make such loan-sharking legal in 40 states. Worse, this legalized theft targets vulnerable very-low-wage working people — those living paycheck to paycheck who can least afford to have their pockets picked. They typically are given a loan of $300, minus an upfront fee of about $50. Two weeks later, the full $300 is due. Often the borrower can’t pay, so he or she takes out another high-interest loan and is sucked even deeper into this lending whirlpool. These “trapped borrowers” have become a lucrative profit center for the lenders — who, by the way, are not fly-by-night back-alley operators but well-manicured executives with a gloss of corporate respectability. These quick-cash purveyors have about 24,000 flashy storefronts across the country, making them even more ubiquitous than Starbucks. They rack up $40 billion a year in revenues, maintain PR firms to perfume their practices, create political funds to grease the necessary skids, and deploy armies of lobbyists to legalize their usury. The good news is that states are beginning to rein in these payday hucksters by capping their interest rates at a merely outrageous level of 36 percent. For information, call the Center for Responsible Lending at 919-313-8500 or go to www.responsiblelending.org.
Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, columnist, and author.
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