Former managers for Ohio-based payday lender Check ‘n Go were ordered to solicit poor, black residents, rewarded for pushing people into revolving loans and pressured to donate to a company executive running for the Ohio House, they said yesterday. “We train our sales staff to keep customers dependent, to make sure they keep re-borrowing … forever, if possible,” said Mike Donovan, a former district director of operations for Check ‘n Go who said he oversaw stores in Washington, D.C., northern Virginia and Delaware.
Donovan and two former Washington-area store managers for Check ‘n Go, the nation’s second-largest payday lending company, spoke out yesterday at a news conference in Washington as part of an effort to get the District of Columbia Council to cap payday-lending interest rates. Advocates for consumers and the poor in Ohio also are aggressively pushing for payday-lending-rate caps and other regulations. “I’m here to tell you that Check ‘n Go deliberately targets black communities,” said William Harrod, a former store manager in D.C. When marketing his loans, he said, “I was instructed to stick to low-income, black apartment buildings.”
Donovan agreed. “We seek out low-income African-American and Latino neighborhoods because we know that this is where our most profitable client base is located.” Bill Faith, the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio, said the former Check ‘n Go officials backed up his argument that payday loans trap people in a spiral of debt. “It’s what we’ve heard from the victims,” he said. “It’s good confirmation to hear it from inside the industry that this is their business plan.”
Check ‘n Go, based in Mason, issued a written response, accusing its former employees of making “false and reckless statements.” “Check ‘n Go is proud to serve the Washington, D.C., community and provide a valuable credit option for all of our customers. Check ‘n Go adheres to all local regulations and industry best practices that provide for a variety of consumer safeguards. We take these charges seriously and will pursue all legal remedies available to the company.”
Harrod said he was trained to access customers’ bank accounts. Donovan said staff members were told not to let customers know about an extended-payment option, unless they discovered it themselves. The industry, which typically gives out two-week loans, has exploded in Ohio from about 100 stores in 1996 to almost 1,600 today. Payday lenders say they provide an important service to those with nowhere else to turn. Faith and others with the Ohio Coalition for Responsible Lending met yesterday with state Rep. William G. Batchelder to work out final details of his payday-regulation bill.
Batchelder, a Medina Republican, said his bill would cap interest rates on payday loans at 36 percent annualized (the current limit is 391 percent), encourage banks and others to offer small loans and limit a borrower to two payday loans per year. His bill will get competition from an industry-backed proposal by Reps. Matt Lundy, D-Elyria, and Ross McGregor, R-Springfield. Provisions include letting borrowers enter an extended payment plan and limiting bounced-check fees to one per loan.
Donovan also said yesterday that he felt pressured to donate to the campaign of company executive John Rabenold, a Republican running for the Ohio House in the 35th District near Cincinnati. Donovan said upper-level Check ‘n Go employees were sent an e-mail by CEO David Davis asking them to give at least $200.
In the first six months of 2007, Rabenold raised more than $90,000 from the payday-lending industry, Ohio records show. “We were told that this was voluntary, but our understanding was that a failure to do so would impact our careers in the company,” Donovan said, noting that Rabenold’s campaign treasurer is the company’s field training director. “So there is a lot of pressure to support the Rabenold campaign, both monetarily and otherwise.” Rabenold said the company did not pressure employees to give.
“My campaign success is based on people looking on me as an individual and my desire to advance the interests of the community,” he said. “These people who are making contributions are the same ones who want to help me knock on doors, walk in parades and wear my T-shirts.”