Payday lenders with new loan products are again preying on military families and creating headaches for the armed forces, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said in a new report Monday.
The findings come less than a decade after Congress approved sweeping new regulations on the industry in an effort to crack down on unscrupulous lenders who charged high interest for short-term loans and pushed many unsavvy military borrowers to the brink of bankruptcy.
Officials from the bureau said gaps in those rules — which cap the annual interest payments on short-term loans to military members at 36 percent — have allowed lending companies to offer "deposit advance products" that can carry extra charges and penalties well above those rate limits.
"The current rules ... are akin to sending a soldier into battle with a flak jacket but no helmet," CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in a statement. "To give our troops full-cover protection, the rules need to be expanded."
The deposit advance loans typically offer service members a chance to cash their military paychecks a week or more before they typically would be able to access the money. In exchange, companies take a fee when the paycheck arrives, and pile on other penalties if the check doesn't cover the outstanding balance.
Bureau researchers found more than 12,000 military families that had used a deposit advance product from 2012 to 2013. The loans are not covered under any previous regulations passed by Congress, and can carry annual interest rates in excess of 300 percent.
Industry officials have defended the products in the past, saying they provide an important alternative to credit card debt and complex, overburdened bank loans. They also have insisted that annual interest rates are an unfair gauge for loans intended to last only a few weeks.
But critics have said the high rates and short loan timeframes often lead to compounding debt that can cripple military families' finances.
Bureau officials said they'll push military leaders and lawmakers to close those "loopholes" in the regulations as soon as possible.
Defense Department officials already have proposed broadening some of the military loan regulations, including extending the interest rate caps to any any payday loan or auto title loan, regardless of their amount or duration. Under current rules, certain loans of more than $2,000 or longer than 180 days are not regulated.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.