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New data show car title loans big business in Va.

Friday - 7/6/2012, 9:44am  ET

By MICHAEL FELBERBAUM
AP Business Writer

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Virginia car title lenders doled out nearly 128,500 loans worth more than $125 million in 2011, according to data collected by the State Corporation Commission for the first full year under state regulation.

Car title lenders were unregulated in Virginia until October 2010, when a new law took effect that limited how much the companies can charge, how much they can lend and for how long. For years, Virginia regulators had no idea how many car title lenders operated in the state, how much interest they charged or how many loans they issued because the companies flew under the radar while advocacy groups fought for stricter regulation on payday loans.

Now the nearly 380 car title lending locations across Virginia are coming under closer scrutiny.

Car title lenders issued loans to 105,542 individuals in 2011, according to the data recently published by Virginia regulators. About 13 percent, or 13,771 of those borrowers, failed to make a monthly payment on a car title loan for at least 60 days.

"Anybody that's behind 60 days _ and it's only a one year loan anyway _ is obviously just going to default probably," said Jay Speer, executive director of the Virginia Poverty Law Center and a leading advocate against car title and payday lending. "It just shows what a defective product it is. ... It just shows what a totally unaffordable loan it is and just because people are signing up for them doesn't mean they have possibility of really repaying them."

When borrowers fall behind, their vehicles can be repossessed and are often sold at auction.

In 2011, car title lenders repossessed 8,378 vehicles, and nearly 60 percent of those were sold by lenders to recoup outstanding loans, the report shows.

Speer said repossessing vehicles "creates a downward spiral" for many of the borrowers because it is typically their only car and makes it more difficult for them to earn a living.

"This is not an option that is good for anybody," Speer said. "This is absolutely a horrible idea."

Title lenders, however, argue the number of loans shows there is a legitimate need for such short-term credit. They argue that those with bad credit and struggling small businesses have nowhere else to turn for small loans.

"There continues to be a need for these types of loans for certain folks," said Scott Johnson, who represents Community Loans of America, which operates about 60 car title lending locations in Virginia. "A lot of our customers are in the trades industry: landscapers, plumbers _ folks that need access to capital in order to be able to do their job but don't have the credit ability to obtain a loan from a bank or other sources."

Meanwhile, the SCC data shows that despite laws enacted in 2008 to curb their repeated use, payday loans remain steady _ and even ticked up in 2011 _ after a dramatic drop in their use. Both are short-term loans that charge borrowers triple-digit interest rates. Payday loans hold a paycheck as collateral for a loan, whereas a car title loan uses a vehicle.

The number of payday loans issued fell from more than 3.5 million in 2007 to about 470,000 loans worth more than $185 million last year, about 8 percent more loans than 2010, the SCC report said. Payday loans were made to more than 147,000 individuals in 2011 and nearly 80 percent of them received more than one loan during the year.

After legal challenges aimed at curbing repeat borrowing, the number of individuals who received 13 or more payday loans has decreased significantly. Before the reform was passed, more than 94,500 borrowers received 13 or more payday loans in 2007. Last year, only two borrowers took out as many payday loans.

While advocates have won reforms for both payday and car title lending, fights to cap the interest rate that both types of lenders can charge at 36 percent have been unsuccessful. The average annual interest rate for car title loans was 220 percent in 2011, while payday lenders charged an average 282 percent.

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Michael Felberbaum can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/MLFelberbaum .


(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)