ASSIGNMENT 13: Payday loans: Fast cash or big trouble?

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If you drive down Hastings Way in Eau Claire you can't miss them, payday lenders are saturating the roadway. They're in the business of offering fast cash, but at a high price.

A new study shows Wisconsin's fees are second highest in the country, with average annual rates of 574 percent. Many states, including Minnesota, are cracking down, considering more regulation, but Wisconsin has few limits.

Some call them predatory, others needed access to emergency cash. One thing is clear about payday lenders, when wages fall and jobs are lost, they sweep in.

Their claims are all over the internet and TV. With slogans like, "we can make today your payday" and "you get the cash you need fast with 100 percent loan approval" they portray the process as easy and upfront.

Financial advisors say the pain comes later.

"A lot of times people get into a payday lending spiral because they need emergency funds, they need it today," Brandon Riechers, Chief Lending Officer with Royal Credit Union said.

"They charge huge interest," Certified Consumer Credit Counselor Wayne Jennings said. "I have personally seen up to 1,833 and a third percent interest."

Jennings works with Family Means, a non-profit offering financial, bankruptcy and debt education services to people in Western Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota.

He says payday loans are difficult to pay back and few people do. It's a cycle playing out all over the badger state.

Just take a look at the history here, since 2000 the amount of payday lenders licensed with the state has shot up, peaking during the recession of 2008.

2000 202
2001 241
2002 274
2003 337
2004 393
2005 442
2006 474
2007 524
2008 542
2009 527
2010 460
2011 423
2012 389
2013 366

-Source: Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions, State of Wisconsin

While storefronts have dropped off a bit, online payday lending has exploded tripling in volume. The Better Business Bureau has warned of those online lenders.

Jennings says they offer consumers little recourse.

"If it's just online there really isn't any regulation," he explained. "I have tracked some of these down, some of the online ones, because we actually do work with repayments and some of them are out of the country, way out of the country."

Brick and mortar lenders do have to follow state rules, but there aren't many. Wisconsin is one of only seven states that imposes no legal limits on interest rates.

Minnesota is in the process of passing legislation to limit payday loans to four times a year, per person. The measure passed the House, a similar bill is awaiting action in the Senate.

"As more and more states are regulating it, we're going to get more and more payday lenders here in Wisconsin," Riechers said.

"It's like any other free market business, if there wasn't a demand they wouldn't be operating," Eau Claire city council member David Klinkhammer said. He represents one of the districts with payday loan stores.

Klinkhammer says with banks tightening their lending criteria, these stores serve those traditional lenders won't.

"They have very few options," he said. As for the volume of stores in Eau Claire, Klinkhammer doesn't see that as a problem.

"More of a concern to me are the economic conditions that foster that type of business," he added.

Nationwide, payday loan stores tend to concentrate in areas with low incomes, a high volume of rental properties, under or unemployment and in places with language barriers.

"They're not being financially educated, they don't understand what the dollar amounts really mean," Riechers said of payday loan customers in those areas.

While expensive, Riechers says payday loans can serve a purpose, if that educational compent is there. Some stores offer it, some to not.

Consumers also can't count on competition to drive down payday lending rates. A study out last month from the Pew Charitable Trusts found without a limit on interest rates, like we have here in Wisconsin, the country's four largest payday loan companies charge similar fees.

WEAU reached out to a number of Eau Claire's payday lenders to get their perspective, none agreed to talk on camera.

"Everyone's going to come upon emergencies, everyone's going to have an urgent need for funds, so I think the best thing to do is reach out to a financial institution today or in advance," Riechers said.

"I would emphatically recommend reaching out to the original creditor, so if that's your landlord, talk to your landlord," Jennings said.

In the payday loan industry, he says it's buyer beware.

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