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Don't Fall for Loan Sharks Just Because They Have Hip Branding
personal finance

Don't Fall for Loan Sharks Just Because They Have Hip Branding

Kristin Wong, Gawker Media

Photo by Malkusch Markus

We all know payday lenders, loan sharks, and credit cards profit when you go into debt and, therefore, they can be dangerous. But many of these companies conceal their danger with clever marketing. Beware: a debt trap by any other branding is just as dangerous.

Over at the Outline , writer Gaby Del Valle discusses one such company, Affirm. Affirm works with over 1,000 retailer partners to allow customers to take out loans for expensive items: a $400 pair of pants , for example. Del Valle writes:

"Unlike layaway, Affirm delivers your purchases instantly - but the cost of instant gratification is interest rates as high as 30 percent. The service is basically a cross between credit cards and layaway, combining the worst aspects of both. And if there's one thing tech startups have mastered, it's getting investors to give them millions of dollars to recreate things that already exist, like taxis, ordering food from restaurants, and now, subprime loans."

The difference between this service and a typical subprime loan seems to mostly lie in the marketing. Unlike other loans, Affirm is a bit more upfront about the terms you're getting into. "We're committed to clear, upfront pricing. You'll never have to worry about extra costs buried in fine print," their website reads.

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Granted, their interest rates, which range from 10 to 30 percent with the average customer taking on 21 percent, aren't as bad as payday loan rates. But as Del Valle points out, you'd have more luck financing crap you don't need with a credit card, since credit cards have an average rate of 17 percent . And everyone knows buying crap you don't need with a credit card is typically a terrible idea.

Somehow, though, this seems different, and it's all in the branding. Most criticism around Affirm and other fintech products is that they're just another way to dupe consumers into bad financial decisions. Absolutely, but I think the even more shameful problem is that these companies do this under the guise of helping people . As Affirm's founder told TechCrunch:

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"We cannot be judgmental but we must be proscriptive. If you can't afford a $200 dress [or presumably, a $400 pair of pants], maybe we're not helping those people."

Okay, fair. But the thing is, Affirm makes it seem like they are helping those people when their website boasts, "...a dwindling number of people can say 'I trust my bank to look out for me.' It doesn't have to be this way. Affirm's mission is to fix this problem." They want to "fix this problem," and then they advertise the following:

Everyone is picking on Affirm here, but the issue is not unique to them. This reminds me of the recent fiasco with Navient, the student loan servicer that was sued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) over shady business practices like misapplying student loan payments. In the lawsuit, Navient said they have no obligation to act in their customers' best interest. But that's not exactly the message that comes across on their "Financial Tips Blog." These companies use financial literacy to hook you into making bad financial moves.

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They promote transparency and good financial decisions and flexibility (you can get into massive debt, but hey, it's on your terms!) but the bottom line is, they make money when you fail. Worse, when someone calls them out on it, they say "we're a financial product, we're not here to help people." That's fine, but it's extra irresponsible to pretend you're not a loan shark with hip, "we're not a debt trap" branding.

As consumers, it seems like we already spend half our lives making sure we're not getting scammed, but here's yet another trap to watch out for. Don't fall for companies that piggyback on financial literacy as if they're helping you when all they want to do is make money off of your bad decisions.

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