STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Payday lenders made about $49 billion in high cost loans last year. You know, payday lenders, folks who will loan you money for a week or two weeks until the end of the month at a ridiculous interest rate in many cases. Almost 40 percent of their business is done online, and if you ever wondered what happens when you apply for a payday loan, Pam Fessler of NPR's Planet Money team found out.
With just a few clicks, she became entangled in the confusing world of online payday lending.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: In the course of reporting a story earlier this year, I logged on to a site called eTaxLoan.com and filled out an application just to see what would happen. Let's see. How much should I ask for? Let's ask for $500. Okay. I need to put my address here, so it is...
To be safe, I make up an address, as well as a name, Mary.
And Social Security number? I'm going to make up one that I am sure nobody has, which is all the same digits. I'm also asked for my bank account and bank routing numbers. Pretty sensitive stuff. Again, I put in something fake. This is just a test. Still, in less than a minute, I got a response.
It says: Congratulations. Tremont Lending has been selected as your lender and you have been pre-approved for a loan up to $750. So what is the loan agreement? Wow. It turns out, if I wanted to borrow $750 for a week, I'll have to pay $225. The site says that's an annual percentage rate of more than 1,300 percent. I think I am not going to agree to this. So I log off.
But within minutes, my phone rings. I did put in the correct phone number. It's a guy from Tremont Lending, in South Dakota. I tell him I'm a reporter, that I don't really want a loan, and figure that will be the end of it. But then I start to get these.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hi, Mary. My name is Ethan, Ethan Foster, and I'm calling from Insta-Loan. And this call is regarding the loan application which you put online. It has been successfully approved from our company as a personal loan.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This message is intended for Mary Kettler. Mary, the very second you receive this message, I need you or your (unintelligible) attorney of record to return the call. My name is Tom Watson.
FESSLER: In fact, for months I get dozens of such calls from around the country and clearly the world. Kevin, allegedly based in Texas, tells me I've been approved for a loan of up to $5,000. What's the name of this company?
KEVIN: Cash 4 You.
FESSLER: Oh, okay. I never heard of it.
KEVIN: Cash 4 You dash online.com.
FESSLER: Oh, 'cause I didn't do - I did it on eTaxLoan.com. By now, I'm pretty confused. I went on a site that said it was secure, now all these people seem to have my application. It turns out there's a huge online bidding process for such loans. ETaxLoan.com isn't a lender at all, but something called a lead generator. It finds customers, then passes them on.
I try to contact eTaxLoan to learn more, but I might as well have been looking for the Holy Grail. The company lists an address in Delaware, but it's not actually there. So I call the customer service line.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Thank you for calling and have a great day. Due to the overwhelming response to our great loans, we are unable to take calls at this time.
FESSLER: They don't take messages or respond to email. And when I try to call back some of those people like Ethan Foster who called me...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We're sorry, your call cannot be completed as dialed.
FESSLER: Nowhere to be found. But eventually I do find someone willing to talk about the business. Jack Murray heads Fix Media Group in Virginia, which has a site called wefixmoney.com. Murray says his company, not unlike eTaxLoan.com, is really a marketing firm.
JACK MURRAY: We are a matching service, just like an Expedia is for a travel company or a Hotels.com is for a hotel company.
FESSLER: But instead of matching travelers with hotels, Murray matches those who need cash and can't get it elsewhere with those willing to lend. For that he might get anywhere from one to a hundred dollars a lead. Murray draws a big distinction between his company and others in the business. He says he's completely above board and only works only with partners he trusts.
MURRAY: We have a pretty limited network of lenders and we know what each of our lenders is looking for. So whether it's a certain state or other qualifications or characteristics of the customer, it will match the appropriate lender based on those things.
FESSLER: Murray says neither he nor his lenders resell personal data, like the kind I submitted. But he says that others do, and that's likely what happened in my case. It doesn't take long online to discover there's a whole network of people out there trying to buy and sell payday loan leads. People like this guy.
MIKE ANDERSON: My name is Mike Anderson and I'm the affiliate.
FESSLER: By affiliate Anderson means he gets applications from sites he's affiliated with similar to the one I was on. He then calls the person to see if they're a good prospect. If they are, he connects them to a lender. Anderson's basically another middle man.
Who do you personally work for?
ANDERSON: I really don't work for anybody. We work for ourselves.
FESSLER: Anderson, who insists he's based in Texas, says he makes about 100 calls a day. Two, three, maybe five produce solid leads. He gets $2 for each one that sells. So that's not much very much money that you earn.
ANDERSON: No. We don't.
FESSLER: And you are definitely in Texas, you said?
ANDERSON: All right, ma'am. I have to start my work, so can we just close this?
FESSLER: None of this surprises Benjamin Lawsky. He's superintendent of financial services for New York State and one of many regulators trying to clamp down on payday lending.
BENJAMIN LAWSKY: Once you made that application, you basically sent up a red flag with them that you are someone in need of this money and you need it on a short-term basis. And that's when the vultures come out.
FESSLER: Lawsky says when you apply online, it's hard to know who you're dealing with.
LAWSKY: Because they'll have front companies and shell companies and they'll be in different states and you really can never get to the bottom of who is behind both the marketing, the lead generating and the lending itself.
FESSLER: And your information could end up in the wrong hands. One online site in Florida was recently shut down after it was found to be siphoning money from applicants' bank accounts to the tune of $5 million. I asked Jack Murray of WeFixMoney.com, how does a consumer tell if they're dealing with a legitimate lead generator?
MURRAY: So I'm kind of old school. When I'm on a website, I like to call someone to say, you know, where you can actually talk to them. Hey, call me. Email me, where you know you're talking to a real person.
FESSLER: And he says if you have questions, make sure you can get some real answers. If not, it's a huge red flag. Pam Fessler, NPR News.