The crime of charging higher interest on a loan than the law permits.
State laws set the maximum amount of interest that can be charged for a loan of money. A lender that charges higher than the maximum amount of interest is guilty of the crime of usury. In addition, courts may modify contracts that contain usurious rates of interest by reducing the interest to the legal maximum.
The charging of excessive interest in exchange for a monetary loan has been considered reprehensible from the earliest times. Chinese and Hindu law prohibited it, while the Athenians scorned persons who charged more than a moderate rate of interest for a loan. The Romans at one time abolished the practice of charging interest. Although they later revived it, the rates were strictly regulated.
During the Middle Ages in western Europe, the Catholic Church censured usurers, and when they died, the Crown confiscated their lands and property. In England, until the thirteenth century charging any interest was defined as usury. As commerce and trade increased, however, the demand for credit grew, and usury was redefined to mean exorbitant interest rates. In 1545 the English Parliament set a legal maximum interest rate. Charging higher interest constituted usury.
The United States followed the English practice, as states passed laws that set maximum legal interest rates. Rate restrictions vary from state to state, and different limits are set for different kinds of loans. For example, higher interest rates are usually allowed on consumer loans than on home mortgages. Some states do not restrict the interest rates that corporations can be charged under the assumption that corporations have sufficient bargaining power and business sense to negotiate a fair rate independently.
Restrictions on legal interest rates apply to banks, consumer loan companies, and other businesses that extend credit. Loan agreements between private individuals are also governed by state usury laws. For example, if a person agrees to lend a friend $5,000, the interest rate cannot exceed the maximum set by the state usury statute. Persons who charge excess interest and then threaten EXTORTION are known as loan sharks. They may be prosecuted for usury and, if convicted, fined and possibly imprisoned. The persons who typically borrow from a loan shark are those who cannot qualify for a loan from a commercial lender. ORGANIZED CRIME has traditionally relied on loan sharking as a source of income.
The penalty for usury is ordinarily a fine, forfeiture of the interest, or both. In some cases involving CONSUMER CREDIT, courts may modify usurious contracts and allow the borrower to pay only the principal sum and legal interest. Courts have often concluded, for example, that the high interest rates charged by "rent-to-own" businesses for the rental of consumer goods, such as furniture and televisions, are usurious and force the consumer to pay an exorbitant price for the goods.
The UNIFORM CONSUMER CREDIT CODE (UCCC) was drafted to address many of these consumer credit problems. Though only nine states have adopted the code in its entirety, most states have included selected provisions from it in their consumer credit laws. The UCCC is designed to provide protection to consumers who buy goods and services on credit. It attempts to simplify, clarify, and update legislation governing consumer credit and usury. The UCCC also sets interest rate ceilings to ensure that consumers are not overcharged for credit. The UCCC works in concert with the federal CONSUMER CREDIT PROTECTION ACT of 1968 (16 U.S.C.A. § 1601 et seq.), which mandates that consumers purchasing on credit be provided with full disclosure on the cost of the loan.
For more than thirty years, the legal status of rent-to-own (RTO) contracts has been the subject of debate. Consumer advocates decry the high cost of these contracts, which typically involve furniture, appliances, televisions, and other electronic goods. The RTO industry argues that it has been unfairly accused of consumer exploitation, when in fact it provides a needed service to individuals who either have poor credit or prefer to rent certain consumer goods. In most states RTO businesses must follow disclosure requirements when making RTO contracts, yet these businesses are allowed to charge rates that, if characterized as credit, would violate state usury laws.
The RTO industry, which serves close to 3 million customers a year and generates almost $4 billion in revenues annually, is composed of dealers who rent consumer goods with an option to buy. An RTO contract normally allows a customer to rent something for one week or one month at a time. At the end of the week or month, the customer can either terminate the agreement without any cost or obligation or renew the contract by making another advance rental payment. If the contract is renewed a prescribed number of times—typically, a period of eighteen months—and the customer meets the terms of the rental agreement, the store conveys ownership of the item to the customer.
Critics of RTO contracts contend that the cost of an eighteen-month contract greatly exceeds the value of the item purchased. If the contract was considered a credit sale rather than a lease, it would violate state usury laws. Usury laws are designed to prohibit excessive finance charges and to prevent creditors from gouging consumers, who are typically in a weaker bargaining position. Consumer advocates contend that RTO customers are mostly poor and uneducated and have poor credit histories. These customers spend a larger percentage of their disposable income on RTO contracts than more affluent consumers do using traditional credit arrangements. Consequently, these critics believe states should reclassify RTO contracts as installment sales rather than as leases.
Consumer advocates note that if RTO contracts were recognized as credit sales, the federal CONSUMER CREDIT PROTECTION ACT, also known as the TRUTH IN LENDING ACT (15 U.S.C.A. § 1601 et seq. ), would apply. The act requires strict disclosures in CONSUMER CREDIT sales, as do state retail installment sales (RIS) laws. An RTO dealer would have to disclose the contract price of the consumer good, the total RTO price, the associated finance charges, and the applicable interest rate. In theory, such disclosures would allow a consumer to shop around for the best RTO deal.
More than forty states have adopted some type of RTO legislation. For example, Minnesota's Rental Purchase Agreement Act (RPAA) (Minn. Stat. § 325F.84 et seq. ), provides a number of protections to consumers. It requires specific disclosures in the RTO contract, in advertising, and on in-store merchandise tags. The RPAA also provides restrictions and protections in the event of the customer's default, gives the consumer reinstatement rights, and limits delivery charges, security deposits, and collection fees.
The RTO industry rejects the idea that consumers are subjected to usurious interest rates when they enter into a contract. The industry says that an overwhelming majority of customers do not pursue the ownership option. Dealers point out that 75 percent of customers return the rented item within the first four months and that fewer than 25 percent rent long enough to own the item.
RTO supporters also challenge the stereotype of the typical RTO customer. A 1994 survey, sponsored by the Association of Progressive Rental Organizations (APRO), a national industry group, found that almost 60 percent of RTO customers earned between $24,000 and $75,000 annually. In addition, a 1996 APRO survey found that 45 percent of RTO customers had a high school education and almost 30 percent had some college education. The industry's customer base includes students, business executives on temporary assignment, military personnel, and families in transit. The RTO business contends that it provides products to consumers who have immediate needs for consumer household goods but who either do not want or cannot accept long-term obligations, as well as to customers who do not have access to traditional credit arrangements.
The RTO industry challenges the claim that it wishes to keep customers in the dark about the cost of RTO contracts. The industry, which sees potential for continued growth, is taking steps to protect customers and ensure that RTO dealers are ethical. The APRO notes that it has participated in the debate and drafting of RTO disclosure laws in forty-four states. The industry agrees that contracts should disclose basic information, including the cash price of the product, the amount of each rental payment, the number of payments necessary to acquire ownership, and the total cost of the product acquired. The RTO industry believes that once this information is disclosed, customers should have the freedom to make an RTO contract.
The industry does not agree that state usury laws should be applied to RTO agreements. RTO operators note that no one is compelled to enter into an agreement. In addition, the costs of doing business in the RTO market dictate the rental rates charged to customers. RTO businesses must provide full service, including repairs, loaners, and pickup and delivery. Finally, RTO dealers do not agree that an RTO agreement is a credit sales agreement. Instead, they see it as a no-obligation, no-debt agreement that gives the customer the option of ending the agreement at the end of the rental cycle.
Association of Progressive Rental Organizations (APRO) site. Available online at <www.apro-rto.com> (accessed November 24, 2003).
Letsou, Peter V. 1995. "The Political Economy of Consumer Credit Regulation." Emory Law Journal 44.
Pimentel, Eligio. 1995. "Renting-to-own: Exploitation or Market Efficiency?" Law and Inequality Journal 13.
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