Originally created 12/15/03

Military: High-interest lenders sink troops into debt



FORT STEWART, Ga. -- On Gen. Screven Way, the one-mile strip of fast-food joints and pawn shops leading to the front gate of Fort Stewart, getting a cash loan of $100 to $500 is as easy as buying a cheeseburger.

Strip-mall businesses with names like Check Into CA$H ("Need Cash Today? It's Easy As 1-2-3"), First American Cash Advance, Gold Check C.S. Payday Advance and PJ Cash ("Civilian and Military Welcome") are as ubiquitous as golden arches.

Fort Stewart has declared these so-called payday lenders enemies at its gate, accusing them of preying on troops with high-interest, short-term loans that many can't afford, sending them spiraling into debt.

"It's like riding a merry-go-round - once you get on, it's hard to get off," said Frederick Sledge, an emergency relief officer at Fort Stewart whose office gives interest-free loans to soldiers in financial trouble. "It's a thriving business, as you can see ... They're doing a better job than we are as far as luring people in."

Military bases across the nation have become magnets for payday lenders, which make money charging fees as high as $30 every two weeks per $100 borrowed - equal to a 720 percent annual interest rate.

Earlier this month, officials from Fort Stewart and Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base urged lawmakers at the Georgia Capitol to crack down on payday loans, which are illegal under state law but thrive because of lax enforcement.

Lt. Col. Russ Putnam, a Fort Stewart lawyer, told legislators that stress over paying off payday loans hurts troop morale and the combat readiness of the post's 3rd Infantry Division, which led the assault on Baghdad. In extreme cases, troops saddled with debt must be discharged.

"When we lose those people because of payday check cashing, they're as good as dead to us. They are gone," Putnam told the lawmakers.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Jason Withrow, who works on a Navy nuclear submarine at Kings Bay in southeast Georgia, took out a payday loan to make ends meet after being hurt in a car wreck. A back injury forced him to drop his second job loading beer coolers and kegs at the Navy exchange.

Withrow says he soon found himself taking out loans with other payday lenders to pay the interest on his initial advance. He ended up juggling seven loans. He got that down to four loans of $390 to $590 before finally asking his Navy commanders for help.

"In five months I spent about $7,000 in interest and didn't even pay on the principal $1,900," said Withrow, 24, of Brooklyn, Mich. "I was having marital problems because of money and didn't know what to do for Christmas for my kid."

The base emergency relief office agreed to pay off Withrow's loans. Now he has a schedule to repay the money over 18 months, with commanders monitoring his finances.

"I will never go back to these idiots," Withrow said of his lenders.

The Community Financial Services Association, which represents about 15,000 payday loan stores nationwide, says only about 2 percent of customers are active-duty military, citing a 2001 survey.

"To me, the bottom line is that we're not serving a very large number of military at all," said Vicki Woodward, a vice president for Advance America, the nation's largest payday loan company, and a spokeswoman for CFSA. "The most discouraging part of this entire issue to us is that fact, that we would be misperceived in that way."

But other bases say they've had similar problems with soldiers sinking deep into payday debt.

"Yes, they are targeting the post primarily because of the assurance they'll be paid," said Richard Bridges, spokesman for Fort Carson, the Army post in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Lenders know they'll recoup their money because they can get the Army involved by calling the commanders of soldiers who don't pay their debts. Troops who don't pay up can face a court-martial, loss of security clearance and in some cases are kicked out of the Army.

Payday lenders have also raised concerns at Fort Carson over their advertisements in the post newspaper. A few years ago, post officials began requiring advertising lenders to list interest rates, some of which were as high as 560 percent, Bridges said. Fort Carson has also denied requests by lenders to shoot photos for ads on post to avoid the appearance the Army supports payday lending.

At Fort Bliss, Texas, officials at the Army Emergency Relief office estimate nearly a tenth of the 10,000 active-duty troops stationed there have needed financial counseling because of payday loans and other debt ranging from high interest rent-to-own plans to bounced checks.

But Fort Bliss is also seeing more National Guard and Army Reserve troops coming in with money problems related to long call-ups away from their normal jobs, which often pay better than the military.

"They are mostly saying they're not making as much money as they were on the outside," said Zenaida Gutierrez, a financial educator on the Texas post.

The CFSA denies that its member payday lenders are taking advantage of soldiers. In March, the association urged its lenders to temporarily suspend loan payments by troops deployed to the war in Iraq.

"It was not a huge sacrifice for our companies because they don't represent a large portion of our business," Woodward said.

Jet Toney, a lobbyist for payday lenders in Georgia, said perhaps the military needs to focus more on financial education for troops rather than bash payday lenders as predators.

"They're not preying on anybody - they're just open for business," Toney said. "It strikes me hard that the military protests so much when they have some responsibility on their end as well. How many 18-to-22 year olds make perfect financial decisions?"

Though Georgia law caps annual interest rates at 60 percent, in effect making the rates charged by payday lenders illegal, violations are a misdemeanor and therefore rarely prosecuted.

Yvette Walters took a different approach. Between 1999 and 2001, Walters took out five cash-advance loans of $200 to $300 from the Heritage Bank of Hinesville at annual interest rates of 340 to 592 percent. At the time she was living on Fort Stewart with her soldier husband.

Last year, Walters filed a civil suit against the bank that later gained class-action status. The bank settled the lawsuit in September 2002 for $1.9 million.

"It's simple math - when you're making $100,000 a month, are you going stop until somebody makes you? No," said Lloyd Murray, one of Walters' attorneys in the suit.

Murray and attorney Brent Savage said they don't know how many people who received a share of the settlement were military.

But the money was divided among more than 11,500, according to court records. And the national newspaper used to publish notice of the class action was the Army Times.