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Internet payday lenders with ties to Indians dodge California regulators

The state has been trying for three years to force the businesses to adhere to the same rules as brick-and-mortar store, but the issue of tribal sovereignty has complicated those efforts.

April 13, 2009|Marc Lifsher

Attempts to reach Ameriloan were unsuccessful. An operator who answered a toll-free telephone number declined a request to provide a name and telephone number for a company official to comment.

Ameriloan is one of a handful of Internet lenders fighting regulatory efforts by California, Colorado and other states. The lenders and affiliated tribes say in court documents that they are "economic subdivisions" of either the Miami Tribe of Miami, Okla., or the Santee Sioux Nation of Niobrara, Neb. The tribes say they depend on revenue from payday lending for "economic and governmental purposes."

The only state that has managed to shut down tribal Internet lending is West Virginia, whose usury laws ban all types of high-interest payday loans. Officials there say they have uncovered evidence that the Internet lenders have no legitimate connections with the Indians and are merely "renting" their tribal affiliations.

Norman Googel, West Virginia assistant attorney general, dismisses tribal immunity assertions as the latest in alleged "shams used by payday lenders" to avoid state regulation. Previous tactics by Internet lenders included claims that they were based overseas or were linked to state or federally chartered banks, he said.

In September, West Virginia reached a legal settlement with three tribes -- the Miami and the Modoc of Oklahoma and the Santee Sioux of Nebraska. They agreed to stop lending to West Virginians, cancel the debts of nearly 1,000 customers and refund $128,000 to borrowers.

"Our view," Googel said, "is that they are subject to the laws of our state."

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marc.lifsher@latimes.com

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