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On Victory Drive, Soldiers Defeated by Debt

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Michael Barajas

Ace Cash Express just outside the gates of Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio


Ace Cash is among a number of payday lenders just outside the gates of Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, and it has four stores within three miles of Fort Hood in Texas.

A 2012 report on the Military Lending Act by the Consumer Federation of America found there had been no drop in the number of payday lenders around Fort Hood since the 2006 law went into effect.

Amy Cantu of the Community Financial Services Association of America, which represents the payday industry, said payday lenders are careful to screen out service members for their short-term products. But she acknowledged that payday companies may provide soldiers and their families with other types of loans. "We welcome more products in the market," she said of the trend of payday lenders increasingly offering longer-term loans. "Options are good for consumers."

Earned a Purple Heart, Lost a Car

Some lenders apparently haven't bothered to change their loan products in response to the law.

A 2011 federal class-action suit filed in Georgia's Middle District alleges that one of the largest auto-title lenders in the country, Community Loans of America, has been flouting the law. The suit names among its plaintiffs three soldiers who took out what appeared to be classic title loans. All agreed to pay an annual rate of around 150 percent for a 30-day loan. All had trouble repaying, according to the suit. One, an Army staff sergeant and Purple Heart recipient, lost his car. The other two managed to pay interest but almost none of the principal on their loans for several months.

The company was fully aware that its customers were soldiers, because they presented their military identifications, said Roy Barnes, a former governor of Georgia who is representing the plaintiffs.

Community Loans, which boasts more than 900 locations nationwide, argued in court that the transactions were not covered by the Military Lending Act because they weren't loans but sales. Here's how Community Loans said the transaction worked: The soldiers sold their vehicles to the company while retaining the option to buy back the cars 2014 for a higher price. In early 2012, the judge rejected that argument. The case is ongoing.

Community Loans, which did not respond to numerous calls and emails, has been making loans to service members through businesses with various names.

Leading up to the gates of Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga., Victory Drive is crowded with lenders. Among them is Georgia Auto Pawn, a Community Loans of America storefront where one of the plaintiffs in the class action, an Army master sergeant, took out his loan.

Just another half-mile down the road is a lender advertising "Signature Loans for the Military." The lender goes by the name of Title Credit Finance, but the parent company is Community Finance and Loans, which shares the same corporate address as Community Loans of America.

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