FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) - As millions of Americans struggle to pay the bills, various payday lenders are offering relief in the form of quick cash.
But these agreements could end up costing borrowers far more in the long run.
Consumer advocates argue these loans seem even more appealing to vulnerable customers in light of the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We know they are advertising to folks during this financial crisis," said Yasmin Farahi, senior policy counsel for the Center for Responsible Lending.
Farahi referenced recent claims made by various companies in the wake of the pandemic.
"Worried about the coronavirus? Title loans could bring you relief," reads a blog on the website for Texas Car Title & Payday Loan. "If you are already living from one paycheck to the next...then you may want to think about infusing your income with a title loan. Getting a Texas title loan can give you a sense of relief and the cash you need, especially during this time."
On its website, Advance America proclaims, "We're here to help before or after your stimulus check arrives."
Texas Car Title & Payday Loan and Advance America did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.
Farahi said in Texas, payday loans carry an average interest rate of 600%.
"While it's marketed as a quick financial fix, it leads to debt trap," said Farahi, who advised consumers to choose other forms of credit.
But proponents of small-dollar lending argue people need these loans now more than ever.
"In these uncertain times, it is more important than ever that Americans are able to access licensed and regulated forms of credit," said D. Lynn DeVault, the chairman of the Community Financial Services Association of America. "That's why small-dollar lenders have been deemed essential businesses so we can continue serving our communities during the pandemic – just as we have for decades."
CFSAA is the trade group that represents small-cash lenders.
DeVault added the industry has actually seen a decline in loan volumes during the pandemic.
"Many of our customers are paying off loans, many are saving, and many have curtailed spending, therefore choosing not to seek out loans," DeVault wrote. "However, CFSA member companies are working in every way possible to meet the needs of customers who are using our products and services during the COVID-19 pandemic, including by offering flexible repayment terms."
Statistics on how many people have turned to payday lenders during the pandemic are not currently available, according to Ann Baddour, the director of the Fair Financial Services Project with Texas Appleseed.
But Baddour said rising unemployment may play a role.
"People aren't using these products as much right now," Baddour said. "With so many people unemployed, it may mean they don't even qualify."
Baddour advised people who do qualify to think twice.
Due to fees and interest rates, consumers could ultimately pay three times what they initially borrowed.
"It's important to look at your finances and to be very realistic about your ability to repay," Baddour said.
Instead of payday lenders, Baddour said consumers should seek help from organizations such as CitySquare, United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, or Catholic Charities.
In a recent memo, the Texas Office of the Consumer Credit Commissioner urged credit access businesses to work with borrowers and to be "practical, flexible, and empathetic."
The state asked entities to consider waiving late fees, seeking deferred payment plans that would avoid negative credit reporting, and suspending auto repossessions, among other suggestions.
Some lenders, such as ACE Cash Express, said they have been helping customers during the crisis.
A spokesperson released the following statement:
"Since the beginning of the COVID 19 crisis, at ACE Cash Express, we have worked with our loan customers who are affected by the pandemic through suspension of payment obligations and collection activity, waiver of late fees and NSF fees, and prevention of derogatory reporting to credit bureaus, among other things. We will continue to work with our customers in this way. If used responsibly, short-term loans are a reasonable source of liquidity for those who do not have access to traditional credit. However, applicants must provide proof of income and ability to repay, therefore, demand for these loans has decreased dramatically in the current environment."
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