July 11, 2014

Feds hit payday lender with $10 million in penalties, refunds

ACE Cash Express, a payday lending company with several stores in Miami, has reached a deal with federal regulators who accused the lender of trapping consumers in a “cycle of debt.”

ACE Cash Express, one of the largest payday lenders in the country, has agreed to pay $10 million in penalties and refunds over its illegal debt collection practices, the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said Thursday.

Regulators accused the company, which has seven stores in Miami, of harassing customers and falsely threatening to bring lawsuits or criminal prosecution against borrowers in order to “bully” them into taking out more loans. “This culture of coercion drained millions of dollars from cash-strapped consumers who had few options to fight back,” CFPB director Richard Cordray said in a statement.

The CFPB also released a graphic from the Texas-based company’s 2011 training manual. The illustration shows a pattern typical of many customers who seek payday loans, which are small short-term loans with high interest rates, usually around 300 percent in Florida. First, the customer takes out a loan in an ACE store or online. Then, according to the graphic, “the customer exhausts the cash and does not have the ability to pay.” Eventually, the account enters into collection and the customer takes out a new loan to pay back the old one, restarting the cycle.

Industry groups say payday loans provide a vital financial lifeline for people who don’t have easy access to bank credit. But consumer advocates argue the loans are predatory and loaded with hidden fees and charges. A 2013 report by The Center for Responsible Lending, an advocacy group, found that Floridians who use payday lenders take out an average of 8.8 loans per year. Around 834,000 Floridians borrow from payday lenders every year, according to the report.

Diane Standaert, senior legislative counsel at the CRL, said the industry hasn’t been honest about its business practices. “It’s not the quick two week loan that they’re claiming,” Standaert said. “Payday loans are designed to create a long-term debt trap for consumers. What’s been made clear today is that what the industry says in public is clearly very different from what it says in private.”

In a statement, ACE Cash Express said that the company had cooperated with the CFPB and implemented several of its recommended reforms. It will pay a $5 million civil penalty and $5 million in refunds to customers. It has also promised to refrain from harassing customers or pressuring them into taking out more loans. It did not admit or deny wrongdoing as part of the settlement. “We settled this matter in order to focus on serving our customers and providing the products and services they count on,” the company’s CEO, Jay Shipowitz, said in the statement.

ACE Cash Express has 91 stores in Florida, according to the company’s website, including 21 in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. In 2003, the company agreed to pay $500,000 to settle a dispute with Florida regulators over its lending practices.

Ali Bustamante, a researcher at Loyola University in New Orleans, called the $10 million penalty “fairly insignificant” considering the size of the company, which has stores in 36 states. Bustamante, who recently served as a visiting professor at Florida International University, said he didn’t expect the company to change its practices.

The main recourse consumers have against payday lenders is to file enough complaints that the CFPB is compelled to investigate, he said.

“ “It’s like a bucket collecting water,” Bustamante said. “When it overflows, regulators empy it out and the bucket starts collecting water all over again.”

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