Companies agree to pay $12 million in lending case

By Don Thompson The Associated Press
Friday January 11, 2002

SACRAMENTO — Household and Beneficial finance companies have agreed to pay about $12 million to settle California regulators’ allegations that they deliberately overcharged tens of thousands of California customers. 

The companies agreed to reimburse an estimated 60,000 consumers a projected $3 million for what the department called a “pervasive pattern of abusive lending practices,” including $1.5 million they already paid under a previously announced June agreement. 

Despite the June settlement, the California Department of Corporations sued in Los Angeles Superior Court in November alleging the companies charged excessive late fees, recording fees, repossession fees, penalties and interest payments. 

The companies will pay the state an estimated $8.9 million for those violations. 

The companies acknowledged they routinely charged $75 administration fees on small loans, exceeding the $50 state limit. They will pay the state $2,500 for each of those violations, the maximum possible, and will pay triple damages for each of the other violations. 

The department sought the maximum penalties because, “this is the exact sort of violation we saw in 1998 and asked them to stop doing it, and here we saw two years later they’re still doing it,” said Andre Pineda, the department’s assistant commissioner. 

The allegations helped prompt California to enact a new state law this year imposing additional restrictions. 

Pineda estimated predatory lending costs state residents nearly $1 billion a year in excessive fees and interest rates, based on a nationwide study of banking data last year by the North Carolina-based Coalition for Responsible Lending. 

The companies’ Prospect Heights, Ill.-based parent corporation, Household International Corp., also agreed to create safeguards against further overcharges, to an outside audit of its California businesses, and to let regulators review its loan files at a special new office to be set up in Pomona. 

“We’re glad that our customers have been made whole. One mistake is too many for our company, and in this case there were mistakes made,” said corporate spokeswoman Megan Hayden. 

Even as the corporation acknowledged its subsidiaries engaged in the practices, it denied they did so intentionally. Hayden said some of the repeated problems stemmed from Household’s acquisition of its Beneficial subsidiary. 

“Our solution wasn’t adequate, and we’re disappointed with that,” Hayden said. “We’re continuing to increase our own — Household’s own — oversight of our compliance, because it’s a priority for us.” 

Suzanne Alexander, a Household victim who now chairs the predatory lending committee for ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, praised the state for tackling abuses she said often target senior citizens and other vulnerable families. 

“We continue to be concerned about their lending practices that are not addressed in this settlement, but it’s a great start,” she said. 

ACORN would like to see the new state law go even farther, said ACORN spokesman Brian Kettenring. ACORN is a nationwide group that has lobbied for reforms. 

The new state law limits fees, prepayment penalties, “balloon” payments and single-premium credit insurance that requires purchasers to borrow the full premium and repay it with interest. 

Administration officials plan a Sunday news conference to outline a new statewide program called STOPP, Statewide Outreach on Predatory Practices, a public education program aimed at teaching vulnerable populations how to avoid telemarketers, Internet investment scams, predatory lending and the like.