There is no legal definition for predatory lending, but it generally includes the use of unethical practices by lenders who use tactics that skirt around the law. They might give unfair loan terms, use confusing language, charge hidden fees, and use high-pressure sales methods. They make money as long as they can keep borrowers in debt to them. They commonly target the elderly, low-income, minorities, or people with poor credit, but anyone can be a victim of these unscrupulous lenders. Predatory lenders thrive on consumers who need or want more than they can afford to have, and trick borrowers into believing the loans are necessary and affordable.
Many commonly accepted loan services are available to consumers that work on the same principles as a mob shylock. There are laws regulating the amount of interest that can be charged for a loan, but lenders can charge "service fees." Check cashing places offer "payday loans", you can write them a post-dated check for the amount of the loan, plus a hefty fee for use of that money for a week or two. The fees can amount to 400% APR, these places are happy to loan as much as possible based on the borrower's expected paycheck. Then what happens when he gets his paycheck and realizes that it's already spent? He'll go back to take out another payday loan so he can pay his bills and buy groceries. This cycle of borrowing more to pay back a loan can trap a person into being perpetually in debt and never getting ahead. These places are usually found on the same block as a liquor store in low-income neighborhoods. These lenders prey on people with limited means and encourage them to live paycheck to paycheck.
Title loans are another way people are getting ripped off. People who own their car free and clear can bring in their title and an extra set of keys, and drive away with up to half the value of their car. They agree to a loan at an extremely high rate, or with a large balloon payment without realistically being able to pay. The title loan companies don't care what kind of credit the borrower has, because they win either way. They receive an excellent profit on the interest charges or they repossess the car and sell it for twice the loan amount. Sounds like a "can't lose" situation for them, so it must be a "can't win" situation for the borrower.
I've heard predatory commercials on the radio from car dealerships. The announcer might say something ridiculous like, "We'll give you $5000 for your trade on anything you can push, pull, or tow in here, and we don't care how ugly it is!" We'd all be rich if we could sell junk cars for $5000, but who would buy one? These predatory lenders just add that $5000 that they "gave" you to the price of your new car being financed. You'll drive away in a shiny new car and you'll get stuck with a loan for $5000 more than the car is worth.
What if you owe more on your trade-in than it's value? It's known as a negative equity loan or an upside down loan. This is quite common, considering car dealers want to sell expensive cars more than cheaper ones, and consumers want to drive the best car they can get a loan for. Cars depreciate faster than the loan can be paid down, and when you spread the payments over five or six years instead of three, this can amount to thousands of dollars. Eager to sell you another new car, dealerships work with lenders and add the difference to your loan amount, ensuring that vicious debt cycle.
It is appalling that greedy predatory lenders would go so far as to trick people out of their homes, but it happens. Abundant offers for second mortgages or use credit card balance transfers to pay off credit card debt come daily in the mail. It's shocking that lenders would encourage you to take equity from your home to buy a two-week vacation, a hot tub, a motorcycle, or other big "toys". Would a sensible person really want to pay 15-30 years with interest for some unnecessary material items that make life just a little more fun? These predatory lenders like to remind you of all the improvements you could make in your life if you just had access to the equity in your home. They encourage you to dream of everything you're missing out on because your assets are tied up in your house. They sell you on the idea that you'll "save" money by consolidating your high interest debt. You might have smaller monthly payments… but the debt is stretched out over many years, increasing your total interest costs. Many borrowers just rack up new debt after getting that second mortgage to pay off bills because their formerly maxed out credit cards are now freed up again. When the borrower can't afford his mortgage, second mortgage, and new credit card debt, the home goes into foreclosure and the borrower loses everything he's worked for.
Home-improvement scams have also hit America hard, particularly the elderly. Someone who has been making regular mortgage payments for many years has most likely built up lots of equity in their home, which makes them a prime target for these ruthless predators. Contractors offer to make repairs or improvements to the home, and can even be so "helpful" as to set up financing for the unsuspecting homeowner. An elderly widow, who can't do the work herself, is grateful for the nice young man who can help her get her home back in shape. When it comes to the confusing legal jargon in the contract, she trusts him and his simple explanation of what it is she's signing. She unknowingly agrees to take out a high-interest second mortgage that requires a balloon payment at the end. She later finds out that all her payments have gone to pay mostly interest, barely making a dent in the principle owed. She can't pay the huge balloon payment when due, and loses her house in foreclosure. It is unfortunate that these predators are willing to put someone's grandmother out of her home to make their fortune.
My neighborhood is several years old and a part of it is still in construction. This addition draws many first-time homebuyers. When I shopped for mortgages, I thought it was odd that my builder's mortgage lender approved my loan for an amount about 30% more than a regular mortgage broker could get for me. Don't we all want the best house we can afford? It's tempting to take a mortgage that's barely affordable, to get that bigger house with more options. It's interesting to note that there are quite a few foreclosures in this neighborhood, usually the houses that are about two years old. On brand new homes, you would only pay taxes on the value of the empty lot, that is, until it is reassessed with the value of the house on it. This happens where I live about a year and a half after the home is built and closed on. The mortgage lender does warn you that your payments will go up in a couple of years after the taxes are reassessed, but still approves your mortgage based on your current income and the tax on the empty lot. You might not think much of it then because you believe you'll figure something out by the time your payments go up. About 18 months later, your PITI payment increases by a couple of hundred dollars a month, but your income hasn't. Many families have lost their homes to foreclosure because they weren't prepared for this dramatic increase in payment.
Predatory lending has many more faces; I gave just a few examples. You've heard of scams people have reported in the newspapers. You can read about victims in internet blogs. The nightly news is always showing a new story about a new way predators are trying to take our money. You've seen the ads that the lenders themselves have run. These unscrupulous businesses may be fraudulent, or just plain tricky. They thrive on the "Gotta have it now" attitude that many consumers live by. The only way to protect yourself is to educate yourself. I've referred to the borrowers several times as "victims", but truly they are victims of their own lack of awareness.
The Mafia Encyclopedia; Carl Sifakis; Checkmark Books 1999
The American Bar Association Guide to Credit & Bankruptcy; Random House 2006
The Center For Responsible Lending