Let’s play a game. I’ll give you a word and you tell me what comes to mind. Ready?
Did you think of a prehistoric animal with claws and stabbing teeth? Or, a stealthy cheetah prowling for gazelle in the grassy plains of the Serengeti? Perhaps a portly Siamese cat stalking a house sparrow?
How about a slick-talking and personable sales person who promises easy credit? These crafty bipedal predators engage in an act called predatory lending — the practice of deceiving unsuspecting consumers with marginal credit into taking high interest loans, usually against the equity in their homes.
If you listen to the radio or read your junk mail, you’re probably very familiar with this pitch: “Slash your monthly payments by combining all of your high interest credit cards into a home equity loan. You’ll write just one check each month, and you’ll be able to deduct the interest from your taxes.” Many homeowners successfully use the equity in their homes to pay down debt in part because they’re able to secure prime loans, conventional loans at reasonable interest rates. Borrowers who obtain loans with good interest rates typically have a Fair Isaac & Company (FICO) credit score, a three-digit number that represents credit worthiness, in the range of 700 to 850. (Recall the credit score scale ranges from 300 to 850.)
Individuals who have marginal credit, a FICO score below 450, often qualify for what are known as subprime loans. Fair subprime lending has enabled low to moderate-income borrowers with blemished credit histories to secure credit. But, because of this population’s propensity to default on loans, subprime lenders charge higher interest rates for their loans. According to the consumer advocate group Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), predatory lending practices—financing excessive fees, charging higher interest rates than a borrower’s credit history justifies, and prepayment penalties—occur most often in the subprime lending market.
Who is at risk for becoming a victim of predatory lenders? Low income, elderly and minority consumers who are anxious to have access to credit are at risk. Borrowers—particularly those who can’t speak English—who don’t understand the loan application process, are also at risk.
Predatory lending practices — a cursory look
As the subprime lending market has grown so has the incidence of unscrupulous lending practices. The following are examples of predatory practices that have stripped consumers of their wealth in the way of high-interest rates and exorbitant up-front fees, and if they can’t keep up their monthly payments, foreclosure.
Financing excessive fees into loans — Predatory lenders often charge up to eight percent in loan origination fees, compared to one to three percent assessed by other financial institutions.
Your right: If your lender wants to charge you more than three percent, find out why, and then consider applying for a loan at your credit union. In addition to offering fair loans at reasonable interest rates, these democratically controlled financial cooperatives counsel members on the differences and advantages of lending products and help them understand loan disclosures, rates, fees, and terms.
Charging higher interest rates than a consumer’s credit warrants — Consumers who don’t know their credit scores, or don’t understand that good credit scores can mean an interest rate difference of two to three percentage points (thousands of dollars over the life of the loan) are vulnerable to this predatory lending practice.
Your right: Protect yourself by checking your credit history and score. You can access a multitude of credit score providers online. Most providers offer a range of services from a one-time check of your score to a one-year subscription, which will enable you to monitor all changes to your credit information. If you use more than one provider, you’ll likely discover you have different credit scores. This is because providers may apply competing mathematical formulas to the data held by the three major credit bureaus (TransUnion, Equifax and Experian) to determine your score.
Consolidating debt in a high interest loan without regard to the borrower’s ability to make the monthly payments — The motivation for some lenders, especially when there is a significant amount of equity built up in the home, is foreclosure on the house which then can be resold for profit.
Your right: Before you consider borrowing money against your home, consider seeking help from a legitimate non-profit credit counseling service such as GreenPath Debt Solutions. To locate an office near you, go to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling’s (NFCC) Web site and click on the Member Agency Locator link. You can also call (800) 388-2227 for 24-hour automated office listings.
Attaching prepayment penalties to a loan — According to ACORN, more than two-thirds of subprime loans come with prepayment penalties, which come due when the borrower pays off a loan early through refinancing or sale of the house. One particularly disturbing example of a prepayment penalty is when it’s combined with an adjustable rate loan. In this instance, a borrower pays a lower rate in the first couple of years of the loan, after which, the rate rises dramatically. Unable to make the monthly payments, the borrower is forced to refinance, and in doing so, must pay a prepayment penalty, often several thousand dollars.
Your right: Predatory lenders often fail to call the borrower’s attention to the prepayment penalty clause in the loan application. Before you sign the papers, ask a lawyer or a trusted friend to review the documents.