Federal regulators reached a settlement last week with the owners of two high-priced lenders over what they alleged were illegal debt collection practices against service members. The Virginia-based companies were featured in a ProPublica story last summer.
The action by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which enforces federal consumer laws, is the latest move by regulators and the Department of Defense to curb predatory practices by companies that target members of the armed forces around the country.
In July, ProPublica published an investigation of USA Discounters, a retailer with stores outside each of the country's 11 largest military bases. The story, which was also published in the Washington Post, detailed how the company courted service members by guaranteeing them credit on marked-up appliances and electronics. If they fell behind on their payments, USA Discounters often sued them, by the thousands, in Virginia, regardless of where they had made their purchases. After winning judgments, the company then frequently seized funds from debtors' pay or bank accounts.
The story identified two other companies, Freedom Furniture and Electronics and Military Credit Services, which employed similar tactics. These companies, owned by a pair of brothers, settled with regulators last week. As part of the agreement, they are barred from using Virginia courts to sue out-of-state customers. The companies also agreed to credit or re-pay customers $2.5 million and pay a penalty of $100,000.
The allotment system has long been abused, consumer advocates say, and often provided lenders an easy way to trap service members in unaffordable loans.
In an emailed statement, a spokeswoman emphasized that the settlement did not include an admission that the companies had violated the law. The statement said the firms "intend to continue to set the standard for excellence in all we do. We are honored to meet the needs of those who serve."
ProPublica's article focused on USA Discounters, which has seized the pay of more active-duty military than any company in the country by a wide margin, according to Defense Department payroll data. But the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has not brought similar charges against USA Discounters (though it did reach a settlement earlier this year over an unrelated practice). A CFPB spokesman declined to discuss whether such charges are pending or its investigative strategies.
But the agency is under pressure to act. After the story ran, a group of U.S. senators sent letters to federal regulators urging them to crack down and forbid the practices.
And this fall USA Discounters announced it had changed its name to USA Living and modified its collection tactics. It still plans to file lawsuits in Virginia against out-of-state borrowers, but now will notify them that they can elect to be sued closer to home if they default on their payments.
USA Living has also paid a Washington lobbying firm at least $100,000 to lobby Congress over "issues regarding CFPB enforcement," according to disclosures.
A USA Living spokeswoman, in an emailed statement, said the CFPB's settlement with Freedom and Military Credit Services had "absolutely nothing to do" with USA Living. The company did not respond to questions about whether it had had discussions with the CFPB about a possible settlement, nor did it respond to a question about the activities of its lobbyists.
A separate action by the Defense Department announced last month will likely have a major effect on military-focused retailers like Freedom, USA Living, and others. As ProPublica reported, service members taking out a loan from USA Discounters almost always voluntarily set up payments through the military's allotment system. Part of the service member's paycheck automatically went to the company every month.
The allotment system has long been abused, consumer advocates say, and often provided lenders an easy way to trap service members in unaffordable loans. In one letter to the Defense Department after ProPublica's story, a group of senators urged the Department to accelerate an already ongoing review of the system.
Last month, the Department announced that, starting January 1, 2015, service members could no longer use allotments to purchase personal property. The change "will eliminate that aspect of the allotment system most prone to abuse by unscrupulous lenders that prey on our service members," said the Defense Department in a press release. Now, military customers will repay loans just like any other customer would.
USA Living's spokeswoman argued the change will not have a major impact on the company because it never required the use of allotments. In an email, the spokeswoman for Freedom and Military Credit said allotments were "just one option" for payment, although CFPB noted many of its customers paid via allotment.