AGs: Md. lender heaped insurance plans onto unwitting borrowers

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A Maryland-based lender deceived its loan customers by selling them insurance policies they didn’t ask for or know about in many cases, the attorneys general of a handful of states claimed in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court in Pennsylvania.

The lawsuit — filed by the attorneys general of the District of Columbia, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah and Washington — alleges that Mariner Finance pressured its sales force to “add on” additional insurance coverage for customers seeking personal and other loans.

“Mariner portrays itself as a community-oriented lender operating small, local branches with strong ties to its local geography. In reality, Mariner deploys aggressive, high-pressure sales tactics, dictated by a profit-driven model that operates according to the famous maxim articulated in Glengarry Glen Ross: Always Be Closing,” the roughly 100-page lawsuit said.

The suit seeks restitution for consumers as well as civil penalties and the repayment of profits, among other consequences.

Mariner disputed the suit in a statement from founder and CEO Josh Johnson, who said the firm cooperated with the investigation and provided data, documents and testimony “that clearly demonstrates the legality of its products and the vital support they provide to consumers.”

“Mariner Finance has continuously disputed the claims that the small multi-state coalition has alleged and will continue to defend itself as an important provider of credit options to those who may have limited access to other sources of consumer credit,” Johnson said.

The suit paints a picture of relentless internal sales goals and prodding messages from managers pushing workers to sell various kinds of insurance, including accident and credit insurance. It’s not something many consumers would expect, according to the suit, since Mariner bills itself primarily as a lender, not an insurance sales company.

Mariner operates 480 branches in 27 states and manages $2 billion in loans.

In 2019, Mariner sold nearly $122 million in premiums and fees for the so-called add-ons, not including interest, according to the suit.

The average loan size was $3,650, with an average rate of 28%, the suit said. Added on insurance counted for $360 per loan, not including interest.

“Since the premiums and fees are financed, these add-ons increase interest payments by an average of about $180 in interest to the loan, for a total added cost to the consumer of approximately $540,” the lawsuit said.

The suit added that 80% of consumers, as of 2020, were were charged for added on insurance coverage.

Most of the consumers who were interviewed by state officials as part of the lawsuit said they didn’t know the additional coverage was optional, that it cost more money or that they had an add-on at all.

The loans, in many cases, were for consumers in difficult financial straits who had pressing financial needs, according to Cari Fais, who leads the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs.

“Mariner’s practice of attaching costly add-ons to the loans of unwitting consumers doubtless plunged many already debt-ridden families into more difficult circumstances,” Fais said in a statement.

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