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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


A billboard for Title Credit Finance promises to rescue borrowers: Showing a picture of a hamster on a wheel, it says, "Avoid the title pawn treadmill," referring to customers who get caught paying only interest month after month.

Title Credit Finance offers installment loans, a product which, as the company advertises, does seem to provide "CASH NOW The Smart Way" 2014 at least when compared to a title loan. Interest rates tend to be lower 2014 though still typically well above 36 percent. And instead of simply paying interest month upon month, the borrower pays down the loan's principal over time.

But the product comes with traps of its own. Installment lenders often load the loans with insurance products that can double the cost, and the companies thrive by persuading borrowers to use the product like a credit card. Customers can refinance the loan after only a few payments and borrow a little more. But those extra dollars typically come at a far higher cost than the annual rate listed on the contract.

At TitleMax, a title-lender with more than 700 stores in 12 states, soldiers who inquire about a title loan are directed to InstaLoan, TitleMax's sister company, which provides installment loans, said Suzanne Donovan of the nonprofit Step Up Savannah. A $2,475 installment loan made to a soldier at Fort Stewart near Savannah, Ga., in 2011 and reviewed by ProPublica, for example, carried a 43 percent annual rate over 14 months 2014 but that rate effectively soared to 80 percent when the insurance products were included. To get the loan, the soldier surrendered the title to his car. TMX Finance, the parent company of both TitleMax and InstaLoan, did not respond to multiple calls and emails seeking comment.

Another lender on Victory Drive is the publicly traded World Finance, one of the country's largest installment lenders, with a market capitalization of about $1 billion and more than 1,000 stores around the country. World was the subject of an investigation by ProPublica and Marketplace earlier this month. Of World's loans, about 5 percent, approximately 40,000 loans, are made to service members or their families, according to the company. Active-duty military personnel and their dependents comprise less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Defense Department.

Bill Himpler, the executive vice president of the American Financial Services Association, which represents installment lenders, said the industry's products had been rightfully excluded from the Military Lending Act. The Pentagon had done a good job preserving soldiers' access to affordable credit, he said, and only "tweaking the regulations here or there to tighten them up" was necessary.

The Commander and the Collectors

It's not known how many service members have high-priced loans. The Pentagon says it intends to conduct a survey on the matter soon and issue a report by the end of the year.

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