Cell Phone Loans Might Be Too Easy Consumers in Finland can get almost-instant cash by sending text messages to loan companies. But regulators worry that high interest rates and inadequate security checks make this a dangerous business.
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Cell Phone Loans Might Be Too Easy

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Cell Phone Loans Might Be Too Easy

Cell Phone Loans Might Be Too Easy

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People in Finland joke that no one talks anymore; they'd rather send text messages using their mobile phones. Now Finns can get cash that way, too. Cell phone loans come with super-fast approval and exorbitant interest rates.

From Helsinki, NPR's Emily Harris reports.

EMILY HARRIS: It's a funny thing. A lot of people in Helsinki say they know somebody who's borrowed money by sending a text message, or an SMS, to a loan company, but nobody admits they've done it themselves.

Mr. LAURI KOISTINEN: My friend took it once, but then he thought that it was a bad idea.

HARRIS: That's Lauri Koistinen, a student lounging outside a shopping mall on a recent brisk but sunny afternoon.

Mr. KOISTINEN: Because you have to pay so much money back from that loan.

HARRIS: At the train station, 58-year-old Lauri Haistinen(ph) says his neighbor's teenage son took out an SMS loan.

Mr. LAURI HAISTINEN: It's all just to have fun. He is 15 years old, and he get some (unintelligible) Euros in some half an hour. He had his father's cell phone.

HARRIS: Dad apparently paid it back as soon as he found out. The charge was equal to 10 percent interest after just four days.

Ms. GUNTIEG PLANTING-VISA (Lawyer, Consumer Ombudsman's Office, Finland): (Foreign language spoken)

HARRIS: Guntieg Planting-Visa has three cell phones on her desk: one is for work, one is personal, one is broken. She's never used any to request a loan. On the contrary, as a lawyer for Finland's Consumer Ombudsman's office she's trying to get the growing business to shape up.

Ms. PLANTING-VISA: The first problem is that they can't identify the consumer sure enough.

HARRIS: Her agency has found that customers can get money transferred to their own bank accounts using another person's cell phone and national identification number, which is like a Social Security number. Another big problem, she says, is that people don't always know what they're getting into.

(Soundbite of radio ad)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

HARRIS: A radio ad for the loans promises cash in five minutes but says nothing about the terms. It does direct customers to its Web site, where the details are posted. But regulator Planting-Visa says that's not enough for somebody borrowing money.

Ms. PLANTING-VISA: He or she should have time to read the pre-information and contract terms and after that decide if the loan is needed.

HARRIS: About 20 companies now offer these loans since the business started here two years ago. Founder of one company, Uhak Otenen(ph), says the fees are fair. He says there's a real need for commercially available, short-term, small loans because banks don't do them and personal relationships often don't survive them.

Mr. UHAK OTENEN (SMS Loan Company Founder): You can be embarrassed and you can't change your friends if you borrow and can't pay in the time which both have agreed.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

HARRIS: In Barluz(ph), a neighborhoody kind of place in central Helsinki, customers are skeptical about SMS loans, but there's are sympathy too. Lauri Rontamaki(ph) says they're too easy to get but…

Mr. LAURI RONTAMAKI: There are people that, you know, I get my paycheck tomorrow, but I have to pay my whatever, car insurance today. So I take that loan and I pay the loan tomorrow also. No problem.

HARRIS: Regulators really worry about people like him, twenty-somethings in a bar. His friend, Miko Vonhonena(ph), agrees that running out of beer money and having easy access to more could be a problem.

Mr. MIKO VONHONENA: The next morning, it's not just to hangover. It's the loan.

HARRIS: Emily Harris, NPR News, Helsinki.

MONTAGNE: Cell phones and text messaging have done more than revolutionize loan companies; Finnish artists say text messaging has made an impact on creative expression. Read how at npr.org.

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