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Beware the fat man scam

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | APRIL 10, 2012 6:30 AM

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We all see and hear obnoxious low-budget commercials for payday lenders, usually featuring a sweaty man yelling at us to take out a "quick and easy" loan to soothe our fiscal anguishes until payday.

We sit back in our chairs, immediately irritated by the fat, sweating man, wondering who on Earth would fall for such a blatant scam — but there is a clear market of suckers for these loans, saddling many towns and cities, including our own, with the burden to regulate them.

Ladies and gentlemen, it's time the Iowa City City Council defend its citizens against the savage vulture capitalists.

Some groups, such as Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, have requested the City Council limit the number of such stores by using zoning rules to drive the predatory lenders out of Iowa City.

A fantastic idea, considering that the financially unstable University of Iowa student population would be easy prey for the payday lenders to sink their teeth into — a little extra money for the weekend out? Absolutely.

In case you don't know, payday-loan suppliers turn a profit by charging people a fee for a loan that the customer will pay back by a certain date, typically their payday (hence the name.)

If the customer is unable to pay the company back before the date, they are charged an additional fee, which often causes the customers to find themselves in debt and even more financially desperation that may have been the initial cause of their visit to the store.

Think of a credit card but in a stationary building with snake-oil salesmen and nearly instant cash; that's how the lenders operate.

Payday lenders have a tendency to set up shop in areas of a lower socioeconomic status, because this group of consumers will not likely have the ability to pay the loans back on time; in turn, providing the lenders with an indebted client that they can continue to use for money.

And not only do these desperate and uninformed consumers use payday lenders, but they file lawsuits when they find themselves in financial trouble — a consumer trying to file a lawsuit against a cigarette company, despite the surgeon general's warnings.

But still, actions against these corrupt companies need to be taken.

In an attempt to regulate these lenders, the FTC has charged some of these lenders with "piling inflated fees on borrowers and making unlawful threats when collecting."

The Citizens for Community Improvement has persuaded the City Council to consider a regulatory zoning plan in order to take back control of the neighborhoods: Restricting the businesses to one for every 20,000 residents; two miles between other stores and one mile from residential areas, churches, parks, and schools; and finally, stopping new stores from opening in neighborhood and pedestrian retail areas. The proposal is under consideration by the Planning and Zoning Commission.

These are fantastic zoning requirements, because they pretty much stop new stores from opening, period — they kill the carnivorous annelid worms before they are born.

Though these measures are enticing, an easier, and certainly cheaper, way to fight back is to better educate the consumer.

Although this is a good goal, it is unlikely that the public would be receptive to government advice, and it would be like pulling teeth to get people to listen. The FTC warns consumers about the dangers of payday lenders and even provides them with reasonable alternatives to taking out these loans, and the City Council can work hard to better inform people to make better choices instead of just making the choices for them.

But the government should put the heavy weight of regulation upon them, just as it regulates the smoke sticks that kill or the adrenaline-pumped casinos that rob citizens of their savings.

So, we must push the City Council to decide to use its zoning power to slowly push out these dangerous lenders without completely eliminating them — to protect the public from the scam of the sweaty, fat man.


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