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Borrower Nightmares: $700 dormitory fee costs family its car

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When Mildred Morris's son won a coveted spot at the New York drama and performing arts college that trained singer-songwriter Jason Mraz and TV actor Jessie Tyler Ferguson of "Modern Family," she was overjoyed. The drama, however, extended beyond school.

Morris started the process of securing a college loan to pay tuition for her son, Jonathan, to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, but she was caught off guard by an unexpected and sudden $700 fee to hold a dormitory room for him.

A single mother of two in the town of Martinsburg, W.Va., 90 minutes northwest of Washington, D.C., Morris works in the technical support branch for the Coast Guard office that issues merchant seamen the equivalent of a driver's license. Although she had a steady federal job, Morris didn't have any savings or credit cards, and with the tough economy couldn't scrape together the $700 fee from friends.

She did, however, own a sporty, green 2002 Pontiac Sunfire free and clear.

A friend told her about a place that gave quick cash if borrowers put up their cars as collateral. Obtaining the loan took just 30 minutes, she said, mostly to check her references. Morris signed a contract with Fast Auto Loans, took her check for $700 and gave the company the title to her car, which Fast Auto Loans could repossess if she fell behind in repayments.

It wasn't until later that she realized how high the interest rate on her loan was -- 300 percent annually.

"I should have taken time to go over it," she acknowledged. "When I saw how large it was, and I was like, wow," she said. At first she tried to pay more than the monthly minimum, but with the cost of getting Jonathan moved and settled in New York, she started to fall behind in payments to Fast Auto Loans. Some months she could only pay $210 and $175 of that went to interest, barely lowering the loan principal.

Many months and over $1,000 later, Morris called it quits, according to a complaint she filed with the West Virginia attorney general. The office is now investigating Fast Auto on behalf of Morris and other consumers .

When Morris fell behind on her payments, Fast Auto Loans employees began calling the references she had listed on the loan paperwork. "On the day the payment was due they would start calling people. It was ridiculous," she said. Her sister, her adult daughter, her friends -- even her supervisor at work -- got repeated calls from Fast Auto Loans.

Frustrated, Morris finally gave up and told the company it could take the car, according to a statement she filed with the West Virginia attorney general. One night, two men from Fast Auto Loans drove up to her townhouse on the edge of town. One hopped out and drove the car away. "I felt sick," Morris said. Kelley Blue Book estimates a car of the same make and model from that year would be worth at least $2,000.

"I ended up losing my car over $700," she said. "I didn't want to let my car go, but I didn't have a choice."

Consumer protection advocates have long raised concerns about this kind of credit.

Car-title loans, which are now regulated differently in each U.S. state, are on the list of priorities of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which officially opens for business on July 21. Policing non-bank financial services "will be a crucial piece" of the bureau's business, Elizabeth Warren, who has been in charge of setting up the agency so far, told reporters at a June briefing. .

However, the bureau is expressly prohibited from setting limits on interest rates. And the still-leaderless CFPB cannot propose any new regulations until the U.S. Senate confirms a presidential nominee as director. Senate Republicans have threatened to block any nominee until the CFPB is restructured to weaken its power.

An important first step, said Ira Rheingold of the National Association of Consumer Advocates, is for the CFPB to use its research capacity to gather facts and data about car-title lending. "After they determine whether or not there's a social utility to this, or whether this is simply a predatory product, they then can craft rules and rulemaking based on that," he said.

Morris is all for it.

"I know there's a lot of single moms out there and how hard the economy is," Morris said, "but those people are not there for you; they're there to rip you off."

Fast Auto Loans' parent company, Atlanta-based Community Loans of America, Inc. declined to comment, saying it has a policy of not issuing speaking to the press. An attorney representing Fast Auto Loans in West Virginia did not respond to requests for comment.

Defenders of car-title loans say they help people who have no other options. Title lenders advertise themselves as providers of fast, easy cash even for consumers with bad credit. "The whole process from application to receiving the funds will take about 15 minutes," according to the website for Cashpoint, a large title lender in Virginia, whose number is 1-888-EZ-BUCKS.

The American Association of Responsible Auto Lenders, an industry group, says most car-title loans are paid back in six months or less. Member companies "keep consumers' payments low enough so they are able to successfully pay off the loan and get their title back," the group says on its website.

A key feature of the title-loan business is that it does not require borrowers to have bank accounts. That distinguishes the industry from payday lenders, another short-term, high-interest credit option that either requires the borrower to write a post-dated check or to provide electronic access to a bank account for automatic repayments.

Title loans typically are made for one month at a 300 percent annual rate. That means a borrower who needs $500 must pay $625 by the end of the month. If the borrower can only afford to cover the interest --

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