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COVER STORY | Vol 6, No. 29, July 20, 2006
(Loan Shark Predator)

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Loan Shark Predator

by Duwayne Escobedo

Tale of Alabama man's payday lending schemes

Meet John Gill Jr.

For at least 14 years, various payday loan schemes he operated around the country have made him a very rich man.

The 48-year-old lives in a wealthy area north of Phenix City, Ala., in a waterfront home on the Chattahoochee River, which divides Alabama and Georgia. Columbus, Ga., sits across the river from Phenix City.

Gill's operations since 1992 have landed him in trouble with the law in Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Washington.

But despite cease and desist orders, consent orders, assurances of discontinuance, injunctions, settlement agreements and appellate court decisions from states across the country, Gill often keeps right on operating in the same location by simply changing his companies' names, its principals or guise to conceal his ongoing illegal payday loan activities, sources say.

His companies, which the Texas attorney general charges are really loan-sharking operations targeting military personnel, charge as much as 782 percent interest a year.

In response to a Georgia class action suit in 2003, Gill filed for bankruptcy and "purportedly took a vow of poverty and conveyed all his assets to the 'Ten Talents Ministry' and related entities, which he controlled," to merely avoid civil and criminal liability, First Judicial Circuit Court records in Escambia County reveal.

But will Gill finally face criminal charges that land him behind bars? Will his businesses finally be closed once and for all?

Maybe. Maybe not.

The "lender in disguise," as he has been called by state authorities, is scheduled for trial Monday, July 24 in state court in Pensacola on a first-degree felony charge of unlawfully conducting a business enterprise under the state's anti-racketeering laws.

It's a case that's drawing national interest from consumer groups, such as the Durham, N.C.-based Center for Responsible Lending.

They're not only interested because it's Gill, whose antics ended up in the New York Times in a 2004 story when the New York Attorney General accused him of making "unlawful and deceptive" loans, but because the case is a criminal one.

CRL Senior Policy Counsel Yolanda McGill says unscrupulous businessmen, like Gill, often face action from overmatched state regulatory agencies, which lack any real ability to levy fines or other penalties to shut them down.

"We're very interested to see how a felony case works out," McGill says. "Regulatory action has not been able to stop a guy like this. They just don't have the tools in the toolbox to stop him. That's obvious when I see an actor like John Gill at it for so long and making a killing doing it. It's apparent that it's a business decision of his to take a lot of risks, pay a fine and keep going. I don't think the John Gills are as rare as the payday lending industry says they are."

Assistant State Attorney Russ Edgar says Gill and his associates for years have persisted in "criminal usury and loan sharking" in recently filed Circuit Court legal documents.

"It is Gill's history of obfuscation and deceit, which the state intends to use to prove his intent, plan, knowledge, identity and absence of mistake in this case," Edgar says. "In spite of the multiple actions by state authorities over a period of years, Gill continued to operate in the same manner, as part of a plan, and not from any mistake."

Gill and his attorney, O. Hale Almand Jr., of Macon, Ga., don't just have Escambia County to worry about. Almand did not return an Independent News call to answer questions about Gill and this case.

Almand is also busy defending Gill in Texas. There, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott froze Gill's assets and sued his company in May for violating Texas finance laws and the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act by charging interest rates as high as 782 percent on short-term cash advance loans.

"These unlicensed practices are outrageous and are deliberately designed to target military families with extremely high-interest loans, putting consumers into a never-ending cycle of debt," Abbott says. "Consumers have a right to do business with honest loan companies without the double talk, so in this case, we will ask the court to order restitution for all Texans who were harmed by this subterfuge."

So how does Gill's scheme work in Pensacola and places across the country in states that allow so-called payday lending centers or not?

He operates under the guises of check cashing or cash rebate services in connection with the sale of catalog gift certificates, Internet access, phone cards or a combination of them.

Here, Gill's company was called Florida Internet.

Under its operation, for example, a consumer seeking a "payday loan" is instead given a $100 cash "rebate" for Internet access. But the company withdraws $30 from the consumer's bank account every two weeks for up to a year until the $100 is repaid, which equals 782 percent interest per year. The greater the rebate the greater the amount of "access" time the customer is offered to the Internet. If a consumer is able to repay the $100, the company tried to disguise the loan as a "termination fee" for the Internet service.

Consumers also sign a contract agreeing to a "waiver of jury trial and arbitration" before receiving the initial loan. The company claims that the contract releases it from liability, removes the threat of class action suit and allows it to enforce debt collection.

The 21-page Texas lawsuit against Gill's companies, Advance Internet and Texas Advance Internet, says the transactions are a loan and calls the purchase of Internet access "bogus."

Under Florida law, payday loan centers are allowed. Although some state measures protect the consumer, such as forbidding the rollover of payday loans, they fail to address the issue of "abusive" interest rates.

Norman Wright, Better Business Bureau president in Pensacola, says no complaints have been lodged against local outlets since 2004. But he warns consumers to pay back the loans with their next paycheck and to check out all the terms.

"It's a service for some," he says. "But the key point to it is to only borrow as much as you can afford to pay back with your next paycheck. It can be extremely costly."

In fact, the Center for Responsible Lending says annual interest rates are typically 400 percent or higher. And the average payday borrower ends up paying $800 to borrow $325.

In an industry that was virtually non-existent more than a decade ago, it's estimated the payday lending industry grew from $10 billion in 2000 to $25 billion in 2003.

And the CRL's McGill says Gill and others like to prey on military personnel.

In fact, research by the organization finds that active-duty military are three times more likely than civilians to take out a payday loan, and one in five, or 20 percent, of military were payday borrowers last year.

"They make ideal customers for these type of operators," McGill says. "Often, military personnel are living paycheck to paycheck; they're young and may be away from home for the first time; they have a steady, verifiable paycheck; they're unsophisticated; and they want to buy stuff to impress their friends. The trap is sprung."

A Pentagon study is expected to come out any day now and blast the companies for affecting military readiness.

U.S. Senators and U.S. House members are also expected to debate capping payday loans at 36 percent annually for military personnel in an upcoming conference on the defense spending bill.

Some have called for an outright ban on payday lending to troops.

The U.S. Marine Corps at Camp Lejune in North Carolina did ban Gill's company in 1998, but such bans have rarely been used, Pentagon officials report.

A 2005 study by Christopher Peterson, an assistant professor at the Levin College of Law at the University of Florida, and Steven Graves, an assistant professor of geography at California State University-Northridge, found payday lenders in greater numbers and higher densities around military bases. They looked at 109 bases in 20 states and nearly 15,000 payday shops.

They conclude: "Payday lenders crowd around the gates of military bases like bears on a trout stream."

Meanwhile, Gill continues to stay in business.

Gill operates, even though the Louisiana Department of Economic Development filed cease and desist orders for excessive financial charges in October 1992; Colorado officials found him in violation in June 1993; an Alabama grand jury ruled he was in violation of the state's small loans act and he was banned from the state in November 1993; Washington authorities ordered him to cease operations when he acknowledged their findings and paid a $23,600 fine; and so on and so forth until the upcoming racketeering case in Pensacola.

"He has disguised a lot of his entities, avoids being caught and keeps right on going," says McGill, the CRL counsel. "He has been a very busy man. It shows how very difficult it is for states to regulate payday lending. Allowing it but regulating bad practitioners is almost oxymoronic."

But Gill and consumer advocates will soon learn whether a criminal prosecution in Pensacola can put him out of business.


 

What is a typical payday loan?

Payday loans are small cash advances, usually $500 or less. To get a loan, a borrower gives a payday lender a post-dated personal check or an authorization for automatic withdrawal from the borrower's bank account. In return, he receives cash, minus the lender's fees. For example, with a $300 payday loan, a consumer might pay $45 in fees and get $255 in cash.

The lender holds the check or electronic debit authorization for a week or two (usually until the borrower's next payday). At that time, the borrower has the option of 1) paying back the $300 in exchange for the original check; 2) letting the lender deposit the check for $300; or 3) renewing or rolling over the loan, if he is unable to repay it. Some lenders accomplish the same effect with "back-to-back" transactions, having the borrower write a check for a new advance, and using these funds to repay the prior loan. In renewal and back-to-back transactions, the borrower gets non "new" money, but pays another $45 in fees.

Source: Center for Responsible Lending, Durham, N.C.


Payday Policy Recommendations

The Center for Responsible Lending recommends several policies to keep military personnel and other citizens from the debt trap of payday lending. Following are its terms to ensure small loans are responsible and fair to borrowers:

• A minimum loan term of 90 days to enable borrowers to recover from financial emergencies.

• Repayment in installments (with no prepayment penalty) to enable borrowers to get back on their feet incrementally.

• Full consideration of borrowers' ability to repay the loan.

• No use of personal check (or electronic equivalent) as loan collateral to stop punitive civil collection actions and accumulation of bounced-check fees, and to remove fear of criminal prosecution.

• Meaningful limits on rollovers, extensions and back-to-back transactions to stop loan flipping.

• No mandatory arbitration clauses so borrowers retain their right to sue for redress.

Borrowers Caught in Debt Trap

Factor/Amount

2003 U.S. payday lending volume/$25 billion
Average loan size/ $325
Average payback/ $800
2003 U.S. payday transactions/83 million
Average No. of loans per borrower/ 11
Total No. of borrowers/7.6 million
Percent of borrowers caught in debt trap/66 percent
Total No. of U.S. borrowers caught in debt trap/5 million

Source: Center for Responsible Lending, Durham, N.C.

duwayne@inweekly.net