When I lived and worked in Zimbabwe, my parents and I lived in different cities, about an eight-hour drive apart. My father, however, was in town at least once a month for meetings and, when he came to town, we would meet for and evening of dinner and catching up. On one such evening, we were sitting in his hotel suite, eating dinner and watching the news. There was a piece on about an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. At the time, people were speculating that people living in the area where the outbreak had occurred had come across dead animals in the forests and had eaten them. Handling the dead animals (which had been killed by the Ebola virus) had infected them with the virus. I looked over at my father and said, “Why would they eat a random dead animal they came across in the woods? I mean, wouldn’t they ask themselves what had killed this animal and wouldn’t they be scared of being killed by the same thing?”
My father looked at me and said, “My dear, you can’t judge them. You don’t know what you would do if you were starving? Who knows what you would eat.”
Since, at that moment I was working my way through a three-course dinner, it didn’t seem like the appropriate moment to argue with my father, but I was pretty sure that no kind of hunger would lead me to eat dodgy food. I do know now that I was judging because I am fortunate enough to have many food options.
It turns out that investigators now think that fruit bats, not mysteriously dead animals are to blame for the spread of Ebola, but I thought about this conversation with my father when I read a piece in the New York Times about usury charges being brought against several payday loan companies, their owner and two of his associates. Usury is one of those not often heard words that is at home in the bible or a Shakespeare play, but it basically is illegally lending money at very high interest rates. I first heard analysis of payday loans on the NPR podcast, Planet Money, who, in 2010, discussed payday lenders. The concept of a payday loan is that people take out a small loan that is that is then paid back using the borrower’s next pay check. These loans, however, charge much higher interest rates than banks or credit cards do. The Planet Money episode referred to rates of over 500%. A more recent Planet Money piece spoke of a loan being offered at an annual interest rate of over1,300%. Many people debate payday loans and the people who take them out. Some argue that people who take out these loans are people who are irresponsible with their money and the payday loan rates are so high because the borrowers are risky. Others will talk about how payday lenders target people with low incomes and get them into a cycle where they end up spending years paying high fees and never being able to repay their initial balances.
In the state of New York, all this debate is moot because payday loans are illegal. When announcing the indictments, on 12 August, the Manhattan District Attorney, Cyril Vance, encouraged victims of payday lending schemes to call the Major Economic Crimes hotline. This is important to know, whether you received the loan at a storefront or online, the practice is illegal in New York, seventeen other states and District of Columbia. This is because, when people feel they have few options, people with few scruples like to take advantage of the situation. These are the types of people who offer to lend you $750 for a week, at a cost of $225. To make this point clearer, if you borrowed that $750 for a year and paid this interest on the loan every week, you would pay a total of $11,700 in interest. That is a lot of money to pay for $750 and I think that most people would agree that charging that kind of interest qualifies as usury.
Even if payday loans are legal where you live, the lenders still have to comply with rules that govern their industry. If you believe that you or someone you know is being taken advantage of, with regard to a payday loan, you can either call your local district attorney’s offices or get in touch with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which is the federal agency whose mission is to protect consumers of financial products. It is important to know that there are protections in the system and there may be more options than you think, when it comes to finding ways to pay debts or make ends meet and not every option involves interest rates that would make your calculator give you the side-eye. Knowledge is power and sometimes knowledge can also save you money and keep you from having your rights violated.