CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Members of the military are especially likely to fall prey to predatory or fraudulent lenders or debt collectors and should be on the lookout for high-pressure sales tactics or anyone who says you have to sign now, witnesses at a U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing said Wednesday.
The hearing, called by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., was a step in trying to address why military members have higher credit card debt than civilians and are more likely to use payday lenders and other high-interest loans.
"I've had clients who purchase two cars in one day. It sounds perplexing, but service members have been trained to trust authority," said Dwain Alexander, an attorney with the Navy's legal assistance office and a retired Navy captain. "When we ask a sailor to swab the deck or charge an enemy position, that's not a debatable issue and for young people that's not something you turn off."
Unscrupulous lenders also prey on military members because they move around so much and because bases tend to be isolated, so they don't have the knowledge and experience that come from a stable community.
Rockefeller mentioned three types of lenders that specialize in small loans and have high-interest rates and fees: payday loans, installment loans and auto title loans, where a loan is tied to a person's car, giving the lender extra leverage.
State law prohibits payday lenders from operating in West Virginia.
A federal law that passed in 2006, the Military Lending Act, was supposed to cap the interest rate that service members pay on loans at 36 percent, but it only covers loans when a term is six months or less, leaving plenty of loopholes.
Robert Cooper, the attorney general of Tennessee, told of his state's suit against SmartBuy, a retailer selling electronics, that set up outside Fort Campbell on the Tennessee-Kentucky border.
SmartBuy was charging more than 300 percent of recommended prices, but disguising that by advertising payments in installments. They were also falsely advertising interest rates and using illegal collection practices, like threatening to call a service member's superior officers.
It took three years to settle the suit that Cooper's office brought against SmartBuy, and when they did, SmartBuy relocated to California to file bankruptcy and escape the Tennessee judgment. Cooper's office was able to track them down in California, but it made the process that much longer and more difficult.
Cooper also told the story of a soldier who had been killed in Iraq whose family had to endure months of illegal harassment from a debt collector.
Rockefeller was torn between the effectiveness of aggressive but time-consuming and expensive suits, like Cooper's, and providing as much education for service members as possible, saying that both were necessary.
"You work with the Guard, you talk with the folks, and they hear you, they believe you, but does it prepare them for these creeps that are going to sell to them?" Rockefeller asked. "I keep coming back to what you said: They're kids, 22, 25 years old ... as they're serving us, they're getting shafted under our watch in this country."
Deanna Nelson, an assistant attorney general in New York, described a company that would buy computers at Walmart or Costco and then remarket them and sell them to service members at Fort Drum. They would advertise them at reasonable prices -- $60 per pay period -- but with fine print so that consumers ended up paying up to $3,000 for a $600 computer.
Rockefeller indicated that he would like to use his committee's subpoena power to force executives from companies like SmartBuy to testify before his committee.
"I'm trying to find some way to get them to be seen as the scumbags that I think they are," he said. "It's a terrible thing happening to our men and women in service and I regret it greatly."
Reach David Gutman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5119.