WASHINGTON - Victor and Debra Goldberg of Ithaca, N.Y., were astonished to receive a $7,500 check in the mail made out to Mrs. Goldberg - for a loan she'd never sought.
Such loans, in the form of unsolicited, "live" checks, are a new marketing tool for some financial institutions. One bank says it has signed up nearly $1 billion.
But critics say they're a ripoff because of high interest rates and also could lead to fraud if someone else diverts and cashes them. They want such checks banned.
"That was our biggest concern: that the check would be diverted," said Mr. Goldberg, a software engineer at Cornell University.
The "Instant Loan" check in Mrs. Goldberg's name came from Virginia-based Signet Banking Corp. - with which the couple had never had any dealings. The interest rate if signed: 13.99 percent annually over 60 months.
Because he's from New York City, where Social Security checks "are ripped off all the time," Mr. Goldberg said he was especially wary.
"This is a real check - cash it for an instant loan!" beckons a letter to other consumers from a regional division of Beneficial Corp., a major consumer-finance company. "Just sign the back of this check and cash it for an instant loan. That's all you have to do to get $(amount of loan). No forms to fill out, not even a phone call. ... And you can pay it back in convenient monthly installments."
Convenient, perhaps, but also expensive. The annual percentage rate for a $2,566 loan over 36 months, for example, is a hefty 25.71 percent, bringing the total repayment to $3,708.
Lenders say they solicit people with good credit histories. They defend the check-loans, calling them a convenience to consumers, and argue they contain enough protections to ensure a consumer isn't penalized if someone else cashes the check.
The Goldbergs, however, complained to their congressman, Rep. Maurice Hinchey, a Democrat on the House Banking Committee. Mr. Hinchey proposed a bill that would ban the loans.
"Banks should not be sending unsolicited loans through the mail where anyone can get their hands on them," the lawmaker said recently. "Even if the loan check reaches its target, a trusting individual could sign it and wind up liable for an exorbitant amount."
Mr. Hinchey and co-sponsor Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez of Texas, the Banking Committee's senior Democrat, see a parallel with a 1970 law that banned the practice of sending unsolicited credit cards through the mail.
Because the check-loans are fairly new, it's difficult to determine how widespread they are. But Signet signed up nearly $1 billion in the past 18 months, said Kitty Griffith, a spokeswoman at the bank's headquarters in Richmond, Va.
The advocacy group Consumers Union says it has concerns about the practice. But spokeswoman Michelle Meier says the group has just begun to look into the matter and can't comment further.
The American Bankers Association considers Mr. Hinchey's bill anti-consumer because it would reduce banking choices, says spokeswoman Nancy Ness Judy.
Check-loans are "like any other bank product," Ms. Judy said. Some banks started mailing them to non-customers as a way "to reach outside of their markets."
Signet, which has branches in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, provides information with the checks that consumers need "to make an informed decision ... as well as all the disclosure required by law," said a statement from president and chief operating officer Gaylon Layfield.
"We think that the consumer is well protected," Mr. Layfield said, because consumers are not liable if a check falls into the wrong hands.
And Beneficial has safeguards to minimize inconvenience "in the rare event" a check is cashed by someone else, said vice president Denise Foy.
"We support strong consumer protections rather than a total prohibition of a product that is easy and convenient for our customers," Ms. Foy said.