There were no fights, no shouting and no need for the police.
But at a Charleston town hall-style meeting on the merits of payday
loans, a powerful lobbying group's message was loud and clear: Payday
lending is a predatory practice and the laws should be changed to protect
consumers, according to the AARP.
But the nation's largest payday lender, given far less time than its
opponents to speak, said its cash advances provide a valuable service for
people who need help between paychecks.
Both sides agree that the short-term loans help keep the lights on for
some borrowers and put presents under the tree at Christmas. But while
getting a cash advance is easy, paying it back two weeks later is more
difficult, consumer advocates say.
"For folks on a limited income, there isn't going to be a pot of gold
at the end of the rainbow to pay these loans," said Teresa Arnold,
legislative director for AARP in South Carolina.
The group has been sponsoring payday forums around the state, including
a recent boisterous debate in Columbia. One speaker at the Midlands event
who owns 11 payday lending and check-cashing stores spoke beyond his
allotted time and provoked threats to call the police.
Although this week's gathering was less eventful, around 50 local
residents heard consumer advocates call for legislators to impose tighter
regulations on the industry.
AARP, a powerful national lobbying group for the increasingly
influential 50-and-older crowd, says borrowers should be limited to one
loan at a time and be subject to a 24-hour cooling-off period before
returning to the till.
The group also supports a monitoring system similar to Florida's, in
which payday transactions are entered into a statewide database to ensure
borrowers aren't carrying multiple loans.
The industry has grown so large it's time for tighter restrictions,
AARP officials said.
Payday loans are widely available. Consumers can borrow up to $300 by
writing a check from their account to the lender. The check is held until
the customer's next payday, typically two weeks.
The charge can be up to $15 for every $100 borrowed, which translates
to an annualized interest rate of around 400 percent. That means a person
who borrows $300 owes $345 two weeks later. If they can't pay the debt,
they can pay $45 and take a new loan to cover the rest.
In 2000, licensed payday lenders issued 2.6 million loans in South
Carolina and charged $91 million in fees, according to the Appleseed Legal
Justice Center, a Columbia-based advocacy group for the poor. During
fiscal year 2004, the most recent data available, the figure jumped to 4.3
million loans and fees of $153 million.
The nation's largest cash advance business is headquartered in the
Upstate. Spartanburg-based Advance America is banned from offering payday
loans in some neighboring states. But in South Carolina, it's a
high-profile, publicly traded business with national advertising campaigns
and offices in busy retail areas.
Advance America was the only payday lender that came to speak at the
AARP forum, which was held at The Citadel.
Jamie Fulmer, director of investor relations, said in an interview that
the company's target demographic is the hard-working middle class.
As for fees, Fulmer said, the charges are comparable to what banks
charge for bounced checks. If a $150 check is returned, the bank's fee is
likely to be around $32, he said, plus another $25 return fee from the
merchant. He noted that AARP charges a $29 fee for late payments on its
Those compare to the $22.50 flat fee Advance America charges on a $150
"Plus, it doesn't have any negative credit consequences, because it
doesn't show up on your credit report," Fulmer said.
He also dismissed allegations that the company preys on lower-income
families. The typical Advance America customer is 39 years old and has a
median household income of $41,000, he said. About 45 percent own their
homes, Fulmer said.
Also, the company is not a hole-in-the-wall loan shark, Fulmer said.
Rather, it positions its stores in high-traffic areas such as strip malls,
or close to retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart. Posters on the walls of
all locations clearly state how much loans cost, he said.
"There are no hidden fees with our product," Fulmer said.
As of June 30, Advance America had 2,670 cash advance centers in 36
Reach Peter Hull at 937-5594 or firstname.lastname@example.org.