Utah is failing consumers by not capping "abusive" interest rates on small-dollar loans that ultimately pull individuals into debt spirals and drag down the U.S. economy, according to a state-by-state scorecard released Wednesday by three national consumer groups.
The National Consumer Law Center, the Consumer Federation of America and Consumers Union listed Utah among 14 states receiving failing grades on four kinds of small-dollar loans: payday loans; auto-title loans; six-month, $500 unsecured installment loans; and one-year, $1,000 unsecured installment loans.
The failing rating came because Utah doesn't cap loan rates at 36 percent or less or prohibit payday or auto title loans. Utah also does not have a criminal usury law, the report said.
The other states with straight F's were Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. Arkansas, Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, West Virginia and Washington, D.C., met all the criteria the consumer groups recommended.
"Utah is one of the states that sets no limits on what lenders can charge," said Jean Ann Fox, director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America. "As we've learned in the meltdown of the mortgage market ... it costs not only the borrower but the community as a whole."
But Paul Allred, deputy commissioner of the Utah Department of Financial Institutions, says the consumer groups are just sore that they didn't get legislation passed that they wanted. He says the Utah industry is regulated, and interest rates are disclosed verbally and in writing.
"I believe if folks using these products take the time to understand and decide whether it's appropriate for them and keep it short term ... then I think those (regulations and disclosure rules) are adequate to protect people."
Payday lending in recent months has been debated by city and county councils, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and the Utah Legislature.
Supporters of payday lenders say the industry provides a needed service for low-income residents, high-risk borrowers or those who find themselves in a short-term bind. Opponents say the businesses are predatory and trap low-income residents in debt.
Utah payday loans average 521 percent annual percentage rate in interest. University of Utah law professor Christopher Peterson has said the typical user spends $793 to pay off a $325 loan.
Ten local governments including Orem, Sandy and West Valley, and Salt Lake County have restricted the number of payday lenders allowed in their borders. Provo earlier this month started looking at similar restrictions.
Allred said potential borrowers are told twice the interest rate that they will pay, even when it's 521 percent. The state examines payday lenders every year to make sure they are complying with the regulations.
A new law requires the payday-loan industry to disclose information that includes minimum and maximum interest rates paid and the average amount of loans.
"In terms of protecting the citizenry, the Legislature, as a public policy decision, said that borrowing is not a right, it is a privilege," said Jerry Jaramillo, supervisor of savings and loans for the Utah Department of Financial Institutions. "It is up to the individual to make the judgment if the loan is in his best financial interest."
Allred said that capping the annual percentage rate at 36 percent would slash the lender's profit, "and you would find virtually no one willing to lend you $100 for a week."
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff earlier this year said banning payday loans would hurt the poor and force more people into bankruptcy.
Peterson disagrees, noting usury laws have been around for centuries to protect the vulnerable.
Linda Hilton, director of the Coalition of Religious Communities, an advocacy group of Crossroads Urban Center, said the old consumer adage,"buyer beware" applies to payday loans.
"But to a point, you have to have some regulations to protect the consumer," she said. "The free market can't take care of itself without some oversight and regulation."
Hilton is trying to find a legislator to carry a bill capping annual percentage interest on payday loans at 100 percent. "I know that (number) sounds ludicrous, (but) it would be a great victory for the consumer."She said she has found no lawmaker willing to be a sponsor.