JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The Discovery Channel hosts Shark Week every summer to celebrate the great predators of the ocean deep. A handful of familiar advocacy groups to the Capitol, however, wanted to shed light on a different kind of shark Wednesday when they protested outside Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer’s (R- MO) office to rally against payday lending practices.
About a dozen protesters from Grassroots Organizing Missouri, Empower Missouri, Communities Creating Opportunities and Missouri Faith Voices braved the rain dressed in shark fins and outfits to protest what they see as harmful business practices. Among them was Robin Acree, the Director of GRO Missouri, who said that despite their playful take on the protest, their message was as serious as a great white attack.
“This is no joke,” she said. “We may be in shark suits here, but it’s only to draw attention to the loan sharks who prey upon our most vulnerable.”
In 2009, a researcher with the Better Business Bureau found that Missouri’s laws regulating payday loan institutions made the state especially vulnerable to practices harmful for the consumer.
“Missouri’s weak payday loan laws have attracted major out-of-state lenders to engage in predatory lending, costing Missourians who can least afford it millions of dollars a year. Because the continually increasing debt owed to payday loan companies is so onerous, some consumers are caught in the ‘debt trap,’ unable to pay the loan off or meet other needs such as utilities, rent and food,” the report said.
Randy Kiser of Communities Creating Opportunities said that the elimination of payday lenders was not the goal of the protest. Instead, they simply wanted to highlight problems with the industry. A typical two-week payday loan can have an interest rates upwards of 500 percent. Acree said that the average interest rate for pay day loans in Missouri is 455 percent.
“There’s nothing wrong with them being in business to make money or offer a service,” Kiser said. “What’s wrong is when they offer these outrageous interest rates… No one’s saying, ‘put these people out of business.’ What we’re saying is treat these people, treat families… fairly.”
Acree added that the protest was attempting to single out Luetkemeyer for receiving of campaign contributions from payday lenders.
“We would like for [Luetkemeyer] to have the guts and the courage to quit taking this money and to stand up for our most vulnerable residents that are being preyed upon by these loan sharks,” Acree said.
The fear from people like Kiser is that lawmakers are taking money from the industry to create rules ahead of time so they aren’t regulated properly.
“The owners of this industry are doing all that they can to see that this standard is so watered down it has no effect whatsoever,” Kiser said.