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Sept. 27 - TitleMax's parent co. agrees to $9 million consumer fraud fine

Category: Banking & Finance

By Lou Phelps, Coastal Empire News

September 27, 2016 - The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) announced today that the agency has fined the Savannah-based owner of TitleMax , TMX Finance LLC, $9 million for “luring consumers into costly loan renewals by presenting them with misleading information about the deals’ terms and costs.” The company was founded by Tracy Young of Savannah.

The CFPB also said TMX Finance LLC “used unfair debt collection tactics that illegally exposed information about debts to borrowers’ employers, friends, and family.”

The federal Bureau ordered TMX Finance to stop its unlawful practices and pay a $9 million penalty.

“TMX Finance lured consumers into more expensive loans with information that hid the true costs of the deal,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. "They then followed up with intrusive visits to homes and workplaces that put consumers’ personal information at risk. Today we are making it clear that these actions were unacceptable and illegal.”

TMX Finance, which is based in Savannah, Ga., is one of the country’s largest auto title lenders, with more than 1,300 storefronts in 18 states. TMX Finance offers title and personal loans through a host of state subsidiaries under the names TitleMax, TitleBucks, and InstaLoan. Single-payment auto title loans are usually due in 30 days, with some carrying an annual percentage rate of up to 300 percent. To qualify for the loan, a consumer must bring in a lien-free vehicle and its title as collateral.

The CFPB found that store employees, as part of their sales pitch for the 30-day loans, offered consumers a “monthly option” for making loan payments. They then offered consumers a “Voluntary Payback Guide” that showed how to repay the loan with smaller payments over a longer time period. But the guide and sales pitch did not explain the true cost of the loan if the consumer renewed it multiple times.

TMX Finance employees also unlawfully exposed sensitive personal information during “field visits” to consumers’ homes, references, and places of employment in attempts to collect debt. Today’s order addresses a period from July 21, 2011 to the present.

Specifically, the Bureau found that TMX Finance:  presented consumers with misleading information about loan terms; TMX Finance employees asked consumers how much they wanted to pay each month or how long they wanted to take to pay off the 30-day loan; The guide and sales pitch distracted consumers from the fact that repeatedly renewing the loan, as encouraged by TMX Finance employees, would dramatically increase the loan’s cost; The guide does not calculate fees or the total cost to consumers of repeatedly renewing the loan instead of repaying it in 30 days; and this makes it difficult, if not impossible, for a consumer to compare costs for renewing the loan over a given period.

And, the CFPB states that some TMX Finance employees revealed information about consumers’ past-due debt while visiting consumers’ homes, references, or places of employment. TMX Finance also made in-person debt collection attempts despite knowing that visitors were not permitted at the consumer’s workplace. Such visits can damage consumers’ reputations, interfere with their ability to do their jobs, and trigger disciplinary action or firing.

Under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the CFPB has the authority to take action against institutions violating consumer financial laws, including engaging in unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices.

Under today’s order, TMX Finance is required to stop abusive loan-repayment policies: TMX Finance cannot use any payback guide or similar document and cannot misrepresent the terms, length, or cost of the loan. It also cannot encourage consumers to take longer to pay than the term of the original loan.

The firm must also stop intrusive visits to consumers’ homes or workplaces: TMX Finance cannot make in-person visits to the homes of consumers or their workplaces to collect payments. To make sure the company follows through, TMX Finance must submit a compliance plan for the Bureau’s approval within 60 days of the order.

And, TMX Finance will pay a penalty of $9 million to the CFPB’s Civil Penalty Fund.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is a 21st century agency that helps consumer finance markets work by making rules more effective, by consistently and fairly enforcing those rules, and by empowering consumers to take more control over their economic lives. For more information, visit www.consumerfinance.gov.

TMX Finance is one of the nation’s largest auto title lenders, with more than 1,300 stores in 18 states. It offers title and personal loans through a host of state subsidiaries under the names TitleMax, TitleBucks and InstaLoan. Single-payment auto title loans are usually due in 30 days, with some carrying an annual percentage rate of up to 300 percent. To qualify for the loan, a consumer must bring in a lien-free vehicle and its title as collateral.

The Company's Statement Today

In a statement after the CPFB announcement,TMX Finance LLC (Company) today announced that it has reached a settlement with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), “which concludes the CFPB’s three-year review of various aspects of the Company’s business operations.”

“The Company has been transparent and cooperative with the CFPB.  Without admitting any of the CFPB’s findings of fact or conclusions of law, the Company has agreed to pay a civil money penalty of $9 million as part of the settlement.  The payment will be reflected in the Company’s quarterly financial statements for the quarter ending September 30, 2016. 

Unlike consent orders that the CFPB has previously entered into with other companies within the emergency credit space, this order does not require the Company to pay any restitution to customers.

“This resolution of the CFPB’s investigation addresses and mitigates the CFPB’s identified concerns while allowing us to continue meeting the urgent financial needs of our customers.  Many of our customers have nowhere else to turn when they suffer from short-term financial setbacks like medical emergencies or home repairs, and we are committed to remaining a reliable source of credit for them when the need arises,” said Otto Bielss, President of the TMX Finance Family of Companies. 

“We continue to focus on enhancing and strengthening our compliance program to support responsible lending practices and our compliance with applicable state and federal consumer lending and consumer protection laws.”

“The CFPB’s concerns focused on the use of a voluntary payback guide in certain states and the prior use of in-person collections visits to consumers.  Since 2015, the Company’s lending subsidiaries have prohibited in-person collections activities at consumer residences and places of employment. In order to conclude the investigation, the Company’s lending subsidiaries also will discontinue using the voluntary payback guide, which was designed to assist customers in understanding the ramifications of renewing or extending their 30-day credit transactions,” Bielss concluded.

The Company's History

On September 1, 1998, TitleMax opened its first location in Columbus, expanding into Savannah in October 1998.  The company remains privately held.

TitleMax opened the first out-of-state store in Phenix City, Alabama, and by 2007 as the economic downturn began, had 500 storefronts.

Then in April 2009, TitleMax Holdings, LLC, filed for chapter 11bankruptcy,  attributed to the default of “the maturity of an estimated $165 million loan from Merrill Lynch & Co,” according to court filings.

In April 2010, nearly one year after the bankruptcy filing, TitleMax Holdings LLC won court approval for reorganization and was able to exit bankruptcy status.

After the reorganization, the company continued its expansion.  

Editor's Note:  The SBJ is attempting to principal Tracy Young at the company's headquarters at 15 Bull Street, and will update the story regarding plans to appeal or other actions.

Published by Brunswick Business Journal.®All Copyrights Reserved ©2016. www.brunswickbusinessjournal.net®

 

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