Va. title lenders pay $1.2M, agree to close W.Va. customers' accounts
CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. (Legal Newsline) - West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey recently announced that his office has reached a $1.2 million settlement with Fast Auto Loans Inc. and Virginia Auto Loans Inc. As part of the settlement in Jefferson Circuit Court, the two title loan companies agreed to close all accounts and zero-balance any debt owed by West Virginia-based consumers within 60 days. In addition, the loan companies agreed to return any vehicles that were seized from West Virginia consumers that have not yet been sold and remove any and all liens on vehicle titles. The companies agreed to cancel approximately $816,000 in consumer debt and to pay $450,000 to the state, of which approximately $150,000 will be used as consumer restitution. The remaining money will be able to be used by the Office of the Attorney General for consumer protection activities, be held for appropriation by the Legislature, or be returned to the tax payers and/or consumers. "Our office is pleased with this settlement in that it will help many hundreds of West Virginia consumers in the Eastern Panhandle, as well as the southern region of the state," Morrisey said in a press release. "While title loans are not legal in West Virginia, some citizens opt to go across state lines to obtain them. However, consumers should be cautious about getting these loans, no matter how cash-strapped they may be, because of the high interest rates and the very real danger of losing their cars." A title loan is a high-interest, short-term loan or cash advance secured by the title to the consumer's vehicle. If the consumer defaults on the loan, the lender may seize the vehicle. The loans by these title lenders charged interest with annual percentage rates that ranged from 120 percent to 300 percent. The state sued Fast Auto Loans and Virginia Auto Loans in 2012 alleging the companies engaged in conduct that violated the West Virginia Consumer Credit and Protection Act. The suit alleged, among other things, that the companies abused and harassed consumers by calling them at home and/or work, and wrongfully disclosed their debts to people listed as references without any legal justification. The suit also alleged that consumers were coerced into relinquishing possession of their vehicles by false threats of arrest and criminal prosecution. Fast Auto Loans and Virginia Auto Loans seized about 218 cars from West Virginia residents, according to records the companies provided to the Attorney General's Office. In the settlement, the companies did not admit to any wrongdoing and denied they engaged in the alleged conduct. "While consumers should always try to pay what they owe, collectors also must abide by the law and treat citizens with respect," Morrisey said. "Lenders cannot harass or threaten people in order to recoup money that is owed. We will always stand strong to protect West Virginians from collection abuse." Morrisey said his office will receive a report within the next 60 days from Fast Auto Loans and Virginia Auto Loans showing how much consumer debt was canceled as a result of this settlement, how many vehicles were returned, and how many title liens were removed from vehicles.