Author Archives: Brad Wolverton, NerdWallet

Rent-to-own complaints spur investigation by federal agency

A Rent-A-Center in Newport News, Virginia on Sept. 22, 2017. 

A U.S. government consumer watchdog agency is investigating the $8 billion rent-to-own industry and related companies over questions about unfair, deceptive and abusive practices, NerdWallet has learned.

Investigators for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are asking specifically about Rent-A-Center, the nation’s largest rent-to-own enterprise with more than 2,400 stores selling furniture and appliances mostly to low-income Americans.

A months-long investigation by The Texas Tribune and NerdWallet last month found that rent-to-own companies have used a little-known Texas law to press criminal charges against thousands of customers who fell behind in their payments in Texas and other states.

NerdWallet also reported in a joint investigation with Raycom Media that Rent-A-Center customers nationwide have complained their credit had been harmed and they were badgered by bill collectors over accounts they had paid off.

Five days after the stories appeared, Rent-A-Center’s top executive, Steven L. Pepper, resigned amid a continuing power struggle on the board of directors. Shares of the publicly traded company, headquartered in Plano, Texas, have declined nearly 75 percent in the last four years as it has struggled to increase revenue.

The CFPB sent Rent-A-Center a civil investigative demand in late July, requesting details about customer accounts it had sold to a debt buyer and other information about its business practices.

Investigators have interviewed people familiar with Rent-A-Center’s record-keeping. They asked about the company’s ability to credit customer payments properly and to report accurate information about consumers to credit reporting agencies, say people the CFPB interviewed.

Bureau staff members have also inquired about complaints that Rent-A-Center store managers pocketed consumers’ money instead of applying it to their accounts, one person interviewed by the agency told NerdWallet. He asked not to be identified because of a nondisclosure agreement he signed with the CFPB.

The CFPB declined to comment on its investigation.

Errors in customer accounts

The NerdWallet-Raycom investigation detailed the account errors and mistreatment of customers, including people who say they were threatened with criminal prosecution and had their doors kicked in. NerdWallet provided guidance to consumers harmed by the company.

Shareholders filed a federal lawsuit against the company in December 2016 over problems with its system for tracking customer payments. The complaint said Rent-A-Center had difficulty starting a new point-of-sale system in 2015, causing “severe harm” to company operations.

The company introduced the system despite repeated internal warnings about its flaws, leading to outages that caused customers to fall behind on their rental agreements, the shareholders allege in court filings. Rent-A-Center conceded its system had flaws. The company failed in an attempt to get the lawsuit dismissed.

A former senior information technology employee who helped with the rollout told NerdWallet that Rent-A-Center’s system had glitches that could show up in any account.

“There was no way to assure the veracity of any specific transaction,” said the former employee, who asked not to be named because of a nondisclosure agreement he signed with the company.

Gina Hethcock, a Rent-A-Center spokeswoman, said in an email this week that the company had received an inquiry from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau regarding a prior debt sale. She said the accounts involved in the debt sale, and the CFPB’s inquiry, are unrelated to the rollout of the point-of-sale system the company uses in its 2,400 stores.

Rent-A-Center has long pushed to keep federal regulations at bay, spending more than $7.2 million lobbying Congress in the past decade, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Rent-A-Center petitioned the CFPB in August to modify or set aside its investigative demand. The company argued in a 30-page letter that the purpose of the investigation, and the broad nature of the bureau’s questions, exceeded the agency’s jurisdiction. The CFPB responded by agreeing to modify certain questions and document requests but said it has the authority to investigate the company.

Many of the complaints against Rent-A-Center detailed in the NerdWallet-Raycom report came from customers who signed lease agreements with the company for furniture sold at independently owned furniture stores.

Those transactions occurred through a Rent-A-Center subsidiary known as Acceptance Now, which operates inside nearly 1,300 furniture showrooms, including Ashley Furniture and Rooms to Go. In those showrooms, customers pick out furniture they want, but instead of buying it from the store, Acceptance Now buys it for them and leases it back to them. This process removes the store from any responsibility in disputes.

The Federal Trade Commission received 2,779 complaints about Rent-A-Center and Acceptance Now between January 2016 and June 2017.

Customers say credit reports were affected

Nearly one-third of the 674 consumers who filed complaints against Acceptance Now said they had asked the company for a record of their payment history or verification they owed money.

The company’s representatives failed to provide it, often saying they had no way of doing so, former customers said.

Ten percent of those 674 customers said errors ended up on their credit reports.

In late 2014, as Rent-A-Center was expanding its Acceptance Now program, it deemed more than 18,000 accounts seriously in arrears and sold them to a debt buyer.

At least 20 percent of the debts were invalid, says Branden Vigliotti, president of Lismore Holdings, who purchased the accounts. Customer after customer told collection agents he worked with that they had paid off their debt, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes under duress, sometimes as the result of a civil court action, Vigliotti said.

Vigliotti is in mediation with the company, which has disputed his claims.

Companies that mishandle customer records can be subject to penalties by state or federal regulators, says Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine.

Companies have also been fined or forced to offer restitution to consumers for violating the law. The investigative demand Rent-A-Center received says the purpose of the CFPB’s investigation is to determine if rent-to-own and related companies have violated the Consumer Financial Protection Act, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act or the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

DeWine led a 2015 push by state attorneys general to force credit reporting agencies to fix inaccuracies on consumers’ credit reports.

He urged consumers who have been harmed by Rent-A-Center to contact their state attorney general.

“This is an industry that needs regulation,” he said in an interview. “This is an industry that is really hurting poor people.”

Jill Riepenhoff, an investigative producer at Raycom Media, contributed to this report.

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Kicking in doors and crushing credit: How a Texas-based retailer torments customers

Olivia Quinn stands next to a dresser she bought as a part of a bedroom set from Acceptance Now, on Friday, Sept. 22, 2017 in Newport News, Va. Quinn says a series of mistakes by the company led to a ding on her credit report, which cost her years of hassle and a mortgage. 

Virginia real estate investor Olivia Quinn says she lost her mortgage because Rent-A-Center, the nation’s largest rent-to-own company, failed to correct her credit report. She had paid off her rented merchandise — twice.

Leroy Walton of Georgia settled his account with Rent-A-Center in 2013, his records show. But for years after, he says debt collectors pursued him, even threatening him with arrest.

Jessica Gonzalez’s federal lawsuit says she huddled with her two sons in a closet of her Florida home while a Rent-A-Center employee pounded on her house to collect money.

And Andrea Gorman told authorities that Rent-A-Center workers kicked in the front door of her Ohio home after she fell behind on payments.

Thousands of Rent-A-Center customers across the United States are complaining in growing numbers of harassment and wrecked finances after leasing furniture, electronics or appliances from the $3 billion company, which is based in Plano.

Customers say their credit scores had been damaged unfairly and they were hounded by debt collectors after they settled their accounts. Many documented lengthy, unsuccessful attempts to get Rent-A-Center to correct its records, a joint investigation by NerdWallet and Raycom Media found.

Even Rent-A-Center shareholders have complained, filing a lawsuit against the company that argued shoddy record-keeping has damaged the business.

In most American industries, harassment over unpaid bills sets off alarms with regulators. But Rent-A-Center relies on exceptions carved out for the entire rent-to-own industry, allowing it to operate outside many consumer protection laws.

The Federal Trade Commission, aware of the industry’s tactics, has warned about the risks of signing rent-to-own agreements.

At the state level, consumer advocates such as Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine say the industry needs more regulation.

Anyone considering turning to Rent-A-Center for furniture and appliances should “run — don’t walk — out of that store. Get out of there,” DeWine says.

‘A welcome hand up’

Rent-A-Center, a publicly-traded company, rents TVs, couches, washers and dryers, and other items for weeks or months. Customers typically can terminate their leases at any time and return the goods, or pay until they own the items.

The company has two basic business models. It has more than 2,400 stores largely near low-income neighborhoods and military bases.

It also operates as Acceptance Now inside nearly 1,300 independently owned furniture stores, including Ashley Furniture and Rooms to Go. In those showrooms, customers pick out furniture they want but instead of buying it from the store, Acceptance Now buys it for them and leases it back to them, removing the store from any responsibility in disputes.

Interviews by NerdWallet and Raycom and complaints to regulators show problems arise if a customer falls behind on rental payments. A missed payment can trigger aggressive responses by employees and touch off record-keeping errors, former employees told reporters.

Quinn and Walton missed payments, then caught up. But their accounts were not properly credited, their records show.

Gonzalez, Gorman and other customers who fell behind on payments faced immediate and aggressive harassment.

Chris Korst, Rent-A-Center’s chief administrative officer, said in an email that the company takes complaints seriously: “We strive to provide the highest level of customer service and when we fall short of that expectation, we work equally hard to resolve those issues.”

The rent-to-own industry has been controversial for decades, largely because it is pricey.

A Vizio soundbar with subwoofer retails for $148 at Amazon. It would cost more than five times as much, $779, if lease-purchased in a one-year contract from Rent-A-Center.

At a rental rate of $14.99 a week, a customer could save the money for 10 weeks and buy the item with cash.

Rent-A-Center said its prices are higher because they include delivery, setup and other services many retailers don’t offer. The company says its prices also reflect the risk of doing business with a population many retailers do not accommodate.

Company won’t explain charges

Caitlin Six is a financial services employee who signed a contract with Acceptance Now in 2013 to lease a sectional sofa, bedroom furniture and two mattresses from a Rooms to Go near Jacksonville, Florida.

Six signed a three-year contract, agreeing to pay $201.28 a month. She made monthly payments for 15 months, then returned the couch.

Rent-A-Center records show she had paid $3,030. She assumed she was close to paying off her account because she no longer had the couch, which she recalls cost $1,299, or two thirds of the total for the furniture.

Rent-A-Center told her she still owed more than $1,700. Six asked for an itemized statement, but the company would not provide one, she told the Florida attorney general’s office in a 2015 complaint.

In March 2015, she got a call from Rent-A-Center demanding that she pay $497.06 or the company would pursue theft charges, her complaint said.

Rent-A-Center representatives began showing up at her house, leaving notes threatening to call police if she didn’t pay or return the “stolen” items, she told a reporter.

Rent-A-Center has strict collection targets, former managers say. When they worked for the company, a store’s percentage of past due customers had to be under 6 percent each week, say the workers, who asked not to be identified because they had signed nondisclosure agreements with the company.

If stores don’t hit their numbers, managers are required to work extra shifts and can lose their jobs, former workers say.

Store sales staff doubles as first-line collectors. They call customers within hours of a missed payment, and workers often go out to track down customers late by a week or more.

The Federal Trade Commission received 2,779 complaints about Rent-A-Center and Acceptance Now between January 2016 and June 2017. More than 90 percent cited aggressive collection tactics.

Ohio customer Gorman says Rent-A-Center workers kicked in the door of her Lima home after she fell two months behind on a contract for a laptop, which she had nearly paid off. She had lost her job and says she told Rent-A-Center employees she needed a few more weeks to make final payments.

Instead, workers broke into her home while she was away, Gorman told Lima police, citing a neighbor who witnessed the incident.

Washington state sued Rent-A-Center in 2009 accusing the company of abusive collection practices.

Rent-A-Center settled the lawsuit in 2010, saying it had done nothing wrong but agreeing to not use abusive language, trespass or visit customers’ workplaces after being told not to do so.

Since that settlement, the Washington attorney general has received more than 800 pages of complaints about Rent-A-Center.

Modern-day debtors prison

Laws in many states allow rent-to-own companies to pursue criminal charges against customers who miss payments and do not return the rentals upon the company’s request.

David Strosnider, a former Rent-A-Center manager in Charlotte, North Carolina, says he pursued criminal charges against only those customers who paid off less than 30 percent of the merchandise.

But some Rent-A-Center managers filed charges on anybody who didn’t pay, says Strosnider, who worked for Rent-A-Center from 2012 to 2015.

Rent-A-Center’s corporate office gave stores “free rein” with delinquent customers, he says. “Their message was, ‘Do whatever you have to do to get your money.’”

A Rent-A-Center in Newport News, Virginia on Sept. 22, 2017.
A Rent-A-Center in Newport News, Virginia on Sept. 22, 2017. Julia Rendleman for NerdWallet

In Houston, the Harris County District Attorney has filed criminal theft charges against rent-to-own customers for at least two decades, says Valerie Turner, county chief of consumer fraud.

Murray Newman, who worked as a Harris County prosecutor from 1999 to 2008, says he justified theft charges if a customer rented an item, never made a payment and refused to give it back.

But he said Rent-A-Center didn’t make that distinction. It used the district attorney’s office as a collection agency, he said, going after customers who fell behind on payments with no intent to steal.

Rent-A-Center said in an email it uses criminal charges in “extremely limited circumstances” and only when the intent to commit theft is apparent.

“We try every possible way to contact, visit and work with our customers, and view filing charges as a last resort,” the company said.

Lasting damage to customers

Between January 2016 and June 2017, 674 people filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission about problems with Rent-A-Center’s subsidiary, Acceptance Now.

Nearly one-third had asked Acceptance Now for verification they owed money. The company  failed to provide it, former customers said. Ten percent of those 674 customers said errors ended up on their credit reports.

Rent-A-Center shareholders filed a federal lawsuit against the company in December 2016 over problems with its system for tracking customer payments. The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Texas, said Rent-A-Center had difficulty starting a new point of sale system in 2015, causing “severe harm” to company operations.

The company introduced the system despite repeated internal warnings about its flaws, leading to outages that caused customers to fall behind on their rental agreements, shareholders say in court filings. Rent-A-Center tried to get the case dismissed but a judge denied its request.

Companies that mishandle customer records can be subject to penalties, Ohio Attorney General DeWine says. He urged consumers harmed by Rent-A-Center to contact their state attorney general.

“This is an industry that needs regulation,” he says. “This is an industry that is really hurting poor people.”

Rent-A-Center’s systems have also harmed middle-income consumers.

Walton, the Rent-A-Center customer from Georgia, says he has been called by at least five debt collectors about bills he paid in full.

His bank records reviewed by a reporter show he paid off the $2,035.93 he owed for a dining room set and sectional sofa from Acceptance Now in 2013.

Two years later, he learned his credit report included an unpaid balance. Walton says he made dozens of calls to Rent-A-Center and Acceptance Now but could not get the error corrected.

In February, four years after he settled his debt, a collection agency left voicemails with his sister and a nephew. The messages warned that Walton would be arrested if he didn’t pay, he says.

Even debt collectors are angry

In late 2014, Rent-A-Center sold collection agencies more than 18,000 accounts it deemed seriously in arrears.

Brandon Vigliotti, a Houston debt buyer and president of Lismore Holdings, purchased those 18,000 accounts and gave about half to a second company to help collect on the debt.

Of the roughly half Vigliotti kept, he said at least 1,800 turnedout to owe nothing, or about 1 in 5. An additional 770 customers had been sued and paid their debts, according to Vigliotti’s research, which NerdWallet reviewed.

The numbers were worse for the second company, Southwestern Investors Group, of Hamburg, New York, and one of its collection agencies, Element Global Services. At least one-third of the 8,200 customers Element contacted had no balance on their accounts, says Eric Westermeyer, former chief operating officer at the company.

Southwestern Investors Group and Element Global Services filed a lawsuit against Rent-A-Center and Lismore Holdings in October 2015.

Rent-A-Center would not comment on the allegations, citing the pending litigation. The case is in arbitration. But the company told reporters “there is a substantial risk that you may have been misinformed as to the facts.”

Adam Parks, who worked with Vigliotti, said Rent-A-Center’s Acceptance Now outlets in furniture stores continued to accept customers’ money even after their accounts were sold to debt collectors.

“They were continuing to collect on accounts that weren’t theirs and not crediting consumers,” says Parks, who is on the board of the Receivables Management Association, an industry trade group for debt collectors. “To me it’s fraud.”

Paid twice but credit wrecked

Olivia Quinn is the Virginia woman who says she lost her mortgage despite twice paying off a $990 bedroom set.

She got the items at a Kane’s Furniture store in Clearwater, Florida, in 2011. She thought Kane’s had handled the transaction and wasn’t told her agreement was with Acceptance Now.

In 2012, after her records show she made payments totaling nearly $1,500, she called Kane’s to pay off the account. A Kane’s manager said he would credit her payment, she says.

But three years later a collection agency in Amherst, New York, called to say she owed more than $1,600 to Acceptance Now, she says.

She didn’t associate the debt with her Kane’s furniture. But because she was shopping for a house and needed good credit, she accepted the company’s $799 settlement offer, she says.

The collector, Huntington Debt Holding LLC, sent her a payoff letter she showed to reporters. A few months later, as she was applying for a mortgage, her credit report showed an outstanding Rent-A-Center balance of $1,698.

After investigating, she learned that her Kane’s furniture had been paid for through Rent-A-Center.

With her mortgage hanging in the balance, Quinn spoke to nearly 20 people trying to resolve the problem, according to notes she showed reporters.

A Kane’s spokeswoman told reporters the company has no record of the transaction. Quinn says Rent-A-Center employees refused to accept the payoff letter, asking her to pay them directly.

Armed with records showing she paid more than $3,000 for the furniture, more than triple the cash price, she refused.

That’s when she says her mortgage fell through. The $1,698 debt is still on her credit report.

Brad Wolverton is a reporter at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: bwolverton@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @bradwolverton. Alex Richards, a reporter at NerdWallet, and Jill Riepenhoff, an investigative producer at Raycom Media, contributed to this report.

The Texas Tribune and NerdWallet, a personal finance company that helps consumers make smart decisions about their financial lives, partnered to examine rent-to-own companies, their debt collection practices and the impact that these businesses can have on consumers’ financial lives. You can read our previous story here, and the rest of NerdWallet’s reporting here.

 

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