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She’s got a competition clutch with four on the floor
And she purrs like a kitten ‘til the lake pipes roar.
And if that ain’t enough to make you flip your lid,
There's one more thing. I got the pink slip, Daddy.

Back in the days of the Beach Boys’ “Little Deuce Coupe,” the only risk to a car title – the pink slip – was when hot rodders bet them on drag races.The FTC just announced its first two settlements with car title lenders that underscore additional risks to consumers’ pink slips and wallets. What should other companies consider if they want to avoid crossing the yellow line?

The complaints challenge allegedly illegal practices by First American Title Lending of Georgia, which operates over 30 locations in that state, and Finance Select, which does business as Fast Cash Title Pawn at five Georgia locations and two in Alabama.

What’s a car title loan? It’s typically a high-cost, short-term loan secured with a consumer’s free-and-clear car title. The lender holds on to the title as long as payments keep coming in. Of course, if consumers don’t pay, the lender takes the car.

Car title loans tend to run between $1,000 and $10,000. They have high interest rates – the typical APR can be a whopping 300% – and short repayment periods, sometimes only 30 days. Each payment after that first month is called a “renewal.” Given that many consumers who take out car title loans are in financial distress, it’s not surprising that loans may extend over a much longer period. According to the FTC, the average is more like eight renewals. In addition to holding the consumer’s car title, the lender charges monthly fees, sometimes as much as 25% of the amount borrowed per month. That means that after eight renewals, a consumer taking out a $1,000 loan could wind up paying $2,000 in fees.

The FTC says the companies’ ads lured consumers in with promises of “zero” interest, but then failed to clearly and conspicuously disclose hidden conditions attached to those eye-catching deals. For example, First American Title Lending touted “0% interest” in big headlines on websites, billboards, newspaper ads, yard signs, and elsewhere. What consumers weren’t clearly told was that they’d only get the 0% rate if they were new customers, if they paid by money order or certified funds, and if they paid in full within 30 days. If it took them longer to pay – the norm in the industry – consumers would have to pony up hefty finance charges calculated back to Day 1 of that "0% interest" loan, as well as the fees that started on Day 31.

According to the complaint, Fast Cash Title Pawn similarly advertised “0% Title Loans,” sometimes adding “1st 30 days 0%,” without clearly and conspicuously disclosing the substantial strings that were attached – including that if the consumer didn’t pay in full within 30 days, they’d have to pay the finance charge for the first 30 days in addition to charges that kicked in on Day 31. 

The lawsuits allege that the companies’ practices violate the FTC Act.  The FTC says First American Title Lending also violated the Truth in Lending Act and Reg Z. Under the proposed settlements, the companies will have to clearly disclose all the qualifying terms associated with getting a loan at the advertised rate and what the finance charge would be after an introductory period ends. The orders also prohibit misrepresentations about material terms of any loan agreement.

The FTC’s message to members of the industry is that they’re not flying (driving?) under the radar. Truth-in-advertising standards apply to car title loans, too. What's more, companies will be held to well-established principles of clear and conspicuous disclosure.

You can file comments about the proposed settlements by March 3, 2015.



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