Predatory Payday Loan Companies and Fraudsters Thrive Among Uneven Laws and Stolen Data, New BBB Study Finds

Illustrations of road signs that read "scam."

As consumers lost jobs and struggled to make ends meet during the COVID-19 pandemic, many turned to payday loans and other short-term solutions.

This not only allowed predatory lenders to thrive – many borrowers still contend with sky-high interest rates and opaque fees – but also created a fertile environment for scammers, according to a new in-depth investigative study by Better Business Bureau (BBB).

Payday loan laws are handled on a state-to-state basis among the 32 states in which they are available, and a complicated web of regulations makes the impact of the industry in the U.S. tough to track. The BBB study finds one common thread, however, in the triple-digit interest rates many of these loans carry – camouflaged by interest that is compounded weekly or monthly, rather than annually, along with significant rollover fees.

From 2019 to July 2022, BBB received more than nearly 3,000 customer complaints about payday loan companies, with a disputed dollar amount nearing $3 million. Additionally, more than 117,000 complaints were lodged against debt collection companies at BBB. Complainants often said they felt ill-informed about the terms of their loans. Many fall into what consumer advocates call a “debt trap” of stacking interest and fees that can leave customers to pay double the amount they originally borrowed. One woman in St. Louis, Missouri, told BBB recently that over the course of her $300 loan, she paid more than $1,200 and still owes an additional $1,500.

Scammers didn’t miss an opportunity to take advantage of consumers, either, with BBB Scam Tracker receiving more than 7,000 reports of loan and debt collection scams representing roughly $4.1 million in losses.

Posing as payday loan companies and debt collectors, scammers arm themselves with stolen information to convince consumers to hand over bank account information and cash. In one case, BBB found that hackers had stolen and posted detailed personal and financial data for more than 200,000 consumers. News reports indicate that it is not an isolated incident.

Just two weeks ago, one North Carolina man received a voicemail from a company called Document Delivery Services advising him of a pending civil complaint and that it was imperative he contact the issuing firm. The phone number the scammer called from was a different phone number than what was left in the voicemail. When the man returned calls to both numbers they were answered by the same male who said he was with a company called Parker & Schultz. The scammer proceeded to recite much of this consumer’s personal information, but when the scammer mentioned owing debt on a credit card the consumer never owned, he knew it was a scam. Eventually, the scammer became agitated and said it’ll be handled in court and hung up. Fortunately, this consumer was smart enough to realize this was a scam and suffered no monetary losses.

Regulators at the federal level have pursued stronger laws to curb predatory lending, but those regulations were rolled back in recent years, leaving states to make their own rules about interest rate caps and other aspects of payday loans. More than a dozen states introduced legislation last year to regulate payday loans, but the landscape for legally operating payday lenders remains inconsistent from state to state. Currently, payday loans are not allowed in 18 states, according to Pew Charitable Trust. In addition, the Military Lending Act sets a 36% rate on certain payday loans. With respect to fraudulent behavior, law enforcement is limited in what it can do to prosecute payday loan scams. Some legal payday lenders have attempted to prevent scams by educating consumers on ways they will and will not contact borrowers.

BBB’s study advises consumers to do careful research into all their borrowing options – as well as the terms and conditions of a payday loan – before signing anything to take out a short-term loan.