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Payday loan changes could affect thousands in Bay area

The federal government may soon enact rules to regulate payday loans, but critics say Florida's law is fine the way it is.

<p>One lawyer says that Florida laws that limit the interest rate and amount of payday loans is OK without federal intervention. AP Photo</p>

Is it a loan? Or is it loan sharking? The interest rate on payday loans can easily reach triple digits.

So now, the federal government is considering regulations to protect borrowers like Sheila Lymon. Unable to qualify for normal credit, Sheila is like tens of thousands living in Florida, who rely almost weekly on payday loans just to make ends meet.

“This is the only way you can get some money. So that’s what I have to do,” says Lymon.

Payday loans are short-term, often paid off as soon as the borrower gets their next paycheck. But between interest and fees, the annual percentage rate can soar -- about 400% on average. That’s why, starting in May, the federal government is expected to impose national standards -- limits on payday loans.

Consumer counselors like Harold Stephenson, director of Tampa’s Consumer Credit Counseling, says payday loan rules not only keep lenders in check, they protect people from getting in over their heads.

While Florida already has tough laws limiting interest rates and the number of payday loans an individual can take out, “People circumvent that by going online and finding these other payday loans that are not in the state of Florida, so there are no restrictions,” said Stephenson.

In Florida, about 7% of the population relies on payday loans. That’s one of the highest rates in the nation. For that reason, there’s also concern that if federal guidelines make the rules too tough, people who actually need the cash in a crisis -- say for a car repair or medical bill -- may not be able to get it.

Online payday loans hit consumers with hidden risk

Consumer attorney Richard Giglio, with the Tampa law firm Maney |Gordon, says Florida’s law strikes a balance between the industry and people who rely upon it.

“I think they should leave Florida's law alone. I think it's working very well. I think it really should be used as a model for the country right now,” said Giglio.

Florida passed tough payday loan laws in 2001 placing limits on them -- interest at 18%, loan amount at $500, a length of seven to 31 days, and limiting the number of loans that can be taken at a time to just one. The state uses a database to do what it can to enforce the rule within its own borders.

The question now is whether the new federal rules would strengthen, weaken, or leave in place what the state already has on the books.

To learn more about Florida’s payday loan laws, click here.

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