Uptick in Crimes Against Elderly, Payday Lenders Tarnish Some Locals' Golden Years

A disheartening report by the Dallas Police Department shows that crimes against senior citizens have increased in the past year, with rates for July 2011 15 percent higher than during the same time last year. Lieutenant Herbert Ashford presented the numbers at this morning's Senior Affairs Commission Victimization Committee meeting, a lengthy discussion about the perils of old age and the hucksters who seize the opportunity to con Grandma out of what's left of her life savings.

Most notably, embezzlement more than doubled in the past year, while residential burglary rose 18 percent. In addition to the rise in crime, a not-necessarily criminal activity to which local elders fall victim is payday and auto title lending, geriatric crisis intervention caseworker, Marilu Thorn, said in a presentation at the meeting. The elderly can borrow against their fixed income for small cash advances that come with exorbitant interest rates, often creating a spiral of debt, inability to repay and even more debt.

There are more payday and auto-title lenders in Texas than McDonald's and Whataburgers, according to Thorn. They've almost tripled in number over the past three years: "It's a monster in disguise, it really is," she says.

The city of Dallas is cracking down on the questionable lending practices. In June, city council passed a set of rules that require payday and car title loan shops to register with the city. The measure restricts loan amounts and repayment terms. These rules were preceded by zoning restrictions that limit distance between lenders and their proximity to highways and homes. It's too early to determine the ordinances' effectiveness because only weeks after the measures passed, the Consumer Service Alliance of Texas filed a lawsuit disputing the new rules.

During the recent legislative session, the state passed two laws regarding payday and auto title lending, one requiring specific disclosures to customers about fees and interest rates and another requiring state licensing for these businesses. The laws go into effect in January.

If a payday loan remains unpaid for five months, the amount owed can triple. The "terrible economy" (yes, even in Dallas), has created a surge in the high-interest loan business over the past 10 years, and minority communities make up the majority of borrowers.

"[Lenders] make it extremely easy -- very, very easy," Thorn says. These businesses have popped up all over our neighborhoods, including inside liquor stores and pawn shops. Thorn said rather than compare the businesses to loan sharks, she prefers to compare them to "piranhas -- they're small and they're all over the place."

In some cases, family members take advantage of elderly relatives, exploiting their financial standing and saddling them with debt.

Thorn said that over the past few years, she's seen an increase in payday lending cases that cross her desk in the crisis intervention office located in police headquarters. "I think it's getting more prevalent, and with the economy the way it is, it's snowballing," she told Unfair Park. This summer, she's even dealt with three heat-related cases when elderly people borrowed money to pay for air-conditioners only to have the debt cycle spiral out of control when they are unable to repay the loan.

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