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The Government Accountability Office recently released the details of its monthslong undercover investigation into companies targeting and preying on retirees with so-called pension advance schemes. Run by scammers a rung below payday lenders, these companies market to financially distressed retirees and trade their future pension payments in exchange for a lump-sum cash transfer.
In many cases, the lump-sum payment retirees receive is worth far less than the value of their pensions. Regulators have been slow to crack down on this growing trend, and if we’ve learned anything from the financial crisis, it’s that the damage caused by financial predators only increases over time if regulators fail to act.
The GAO’s findings track closely with recent investigations by The New York Times and the Arkansas Securities Department, whose investigation led to the shuttering of Voyager Financial Group’s operations earlier this year. These pension advance companies, all unnamed by the GAO, are almost all Web-based. They operate sophisticated marketing campaigns that target financially vulnerable retirees with poor credit, and carefully structure their products in an attempt to skirt state and federal caps on interest rates and disclosure rules.
Nearly all product offers made to undercover GAO investigators had annual interest rates that ranged from 27 percent to 46 percent, far above the legal limit for credit cards and loans in many states. Worse, the GAO found that in some cases, pensioners are required to purchase life insurance and list the company as a beneficiary to protect the pension advance firm from loss should the pensioner die before repayment.
In nearly all cases, the GAO discovered these companies do not disclose their exorbitant fees and high interest rates in their advertisements or in the contracts presented to consumers. The GAO also found that 30 of the 38 companies it investigated in the pension advance business were affiliated with one another, sharing employees and other resources, or were the same company operating under several names. In most cases, such conflicts of interest are not disclosed to consumers, making it almost impossible to verify a firm’s reputation or file a complaint.
The GAO’s investigation showed the extent of the sleight of hand played by these companies, providing several instances where sales representatives struggled to explain their pension advance products and the consequences for consumers:
Representative from Company 31: “It is not a loan to you ... in the purest sense of an American loan, it is not.”
GAO Undercover Investigator: “Okay. What is it?”
GAO Undercover Investigator: “I’m trying to find out ... what you offer ... is it a loan? ... What is it?”
Representative from Company 30: “Well, it’s kind of a — they don’t call it a loan. It’s — it’s a — it’s rated as a cash advance ... depending on how you look at it, you can say it’s a loan.”
Our seniors and veterans deserve better than this. As the financial crisis demonstrated, there is no shortage of fraudsters willing to take advantage of Americans caught in a bind. State regulators have already begun to act and it is time that we did the same.
The GAO reports that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has yet to develop an option on its consumer complaint database for victims of pension advance schemes to submit complaints. This needs to change.