FID must fix loopholes in regulations to protect New Mexicans from predatory loans

GALLUP— The New Mexico Financial Institutions Division must close loopholes in storefront loan renewals and ensure greater transparency in the small loan industry, said the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty at a hearing in Gallup today. The FID held the hearing to gather public comment on its proposed HB 347 regulations. The law, passed during the 2017 New Mexico legislative session, imposes a 175 percent APR interest rate cap on small loans. Previous to its passage, most small loans were unregulated and interest rates were even higher.

Gallup, which is almost 50 percent Native American, has the highest concentration of storefront lenders in New Mexico with nearly 50 licensed lenders for a population of less than 23,000. Storefront lenders have long aggressively targeted low-income families and Native communities in the state, pushing loans with high-interest rates or arbitrary fees with little regard for an individual’s ability to repay.

“The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission office receives a variety of consumer complaints about small loans that Navajo citizens enter,” said Leonard Gorman, executive director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission. “Often times the Navajo consumer is an elder who has been misinformed or not informed of the conditions involving their loans.”

HB 347, in addition to the APR cap, strictly limits the fees that lenders are permitted to charge borrowers, eliminates interest-only payments on the majority of storefront loans, and stipulates that all such loans, except refund anticipation loans, have an initial maturity of 120 days.

Loan renewals, however, are not addressed by the FID’s proposed regulations. This creates a major loophole that leaves consumers vulnerable to interest rates and fees that are now illegal under the law for new loans. The Center urges the FID to close this loophole by clarifying that renewals are subject to the law’s fee limit, interest rate cap, and payment schedule requirements for new loans.

“All New Mexicans deserve access to fair and transparent loans under reasonable terms, including low-income families. But we have a lot of work to do to create a more inclusive economy in our state,” said Christopher Sanchez, supervising attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “Predatory lending has hurt New Mexican families and our economy in concrete ways, draining millions of dollars from the pockets of those who can least afford it. The FID can meaningfully address this damage to consumers in 2018 by first fixing the loopholes around loan renewals in its regulations.”

In New Mexico, storefront lenders frequently market and encourage borrowers to “renew,” “refinance,” or “rollover” their existing loans. High-cost small loans, with interest rates and fees that add up to several times the loan principal, are often nearly impossible for borrowers to pay off in the short terms that lenders offer.

For many people, the only solution at the end of the repayment period is to renew the loan and pay costly fees and extended high interest payments. Repeated renewals dramatically increase the cost of a small loan and make it extremely difficult for a borrower to calculate the long term financial consequences of the extension.

For example, a Zuni man with a full-time income was struggling to make payments on a $125 loan he took out from a Gallup company 10 years ago. When he was unable to pay back the principal, interest, and high fees by the date the loan was due, he renewed the loan rather than default. He has now renewed his loan over a dozen times and paid the company thousands of dollars in interest and renewal fees. He still cannot pay off the principal.

The FID’s proposed regulations also fail to address the lack of transparency in storefront lending practices. It is all too common in the industry for storefront lenders to mislead borrowers about the true cost of small loans through confusing contract terms, expensive and often useless add-on products, and by marketing loans that conceal long term costs. Because of this intentional subterfuge, it is often difficult or impossible for consumers to calculate the true costs of their loans.

“We should all be able to walk into a small loan store and see how much a loan will actually cost,” said Sanchez. “The market operates more effectively when all members of the public can understand the terms of the contracts they are entering. It’s important that the regulations ensure that loan terms are disclosed to borrowers in clear, straightforward terms.”

The Center also suggests the regulations include improved methods of data collection, greater protections for borrowers of refund anticipation loans, and expanded language accessibility.

“While a small loan business may have a Navajo employee interacting with the Navajo customers, our Navajo plaintiffs indicate that the Navajo employee does not speak the Navajo language well enough to communicate effectively with Navajo elders,” said Gorman. “The new administrative rules must include provisions for explaining the small loan entirely in the language preferred by the customers. Without a language assistance provision, Navajo consumers with difficulty understanding the English language will continue to be disenfranchised because they cannot fully understand the loan documents.”

The FID’s proposed regulations can be found here: www.rld.state.nm.us/financialinstitutions/

The Center’s comments on the proposed regulations can be found here: https://wp.me/a7pqlk-10H

The Center’s suggested changes to the proposed regulations can be found here: https://wp.me/a7pqlk-10I