Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Chilean financial scandal: credit card fine-print rewritten by company to inflate consumer debt

Marcela Ortiz, Editor CI Santiago Office
Chilean company, La Polar, is the star of the latest major financial scandal in Chile. The lack of regulation of the retail financial market is also a protagonist in the recent drama. Marcela Ortiz, Editor at Consumers International Santiago Office, gives an overview of the situation so far.

La Polar, a retail store that has sold clothing in Chile for decades, has been found to have renegotiated the terms of the debt of nearly half a million users (418,826 people, according to known figures to date) [of its store credit card] without informing them, probably since 2005.

Fraud
What is known so far is that those who carried out these actions at La Polar would select customers who were defaulting on their debts and would give them a unilateral and fraudulent renegotiation of their debt.

This meant that for consumers, their debts were multiplied and they were threatened with seizure of their property or with legal action for being in arrears. Data on many of the users was delivered to the dreaded Dicom (the national database of defaulters in Chile), which caused people to lose their jobs or not be able to apply for new jobs. It also meant they were denied access to credit, in addition to other serious costs.

Many of them paid several times over what they owed and still were in debt to La Polar.

Organisations
"This has to do with malpractice and misconduct, but also a lack of control by the economic authorities over what businesses do to consumers. Here we have organisations that do not control violations of the law by this company," said the President of the National Corporation of Consumers and Users (Conadecus), Hernán Calderón, on announcing that they were taking part in a class action opened by the National Consumer Service (Sernac) against La Polar.

Contract
The Organisation of Consumers and Users (ODECU) has conducted several studies in the past on the bank contracts of different companies, including La Polar. The contract of La Polar "shows several clauses that violate principles and specific rules of consumer law…”, such as those that would accelerate credit in favour of the superstore, wrote Alejandro Pujá at the time, head of the study and Coordinator at ODECU. The complaint was ignored by the media and authorities, the investigator said this week.

Outside the law
At the time of this post, the case was clearly entering into the realm of being criminal: with the homes of executives of La Polar being raided; with an investigation beginning by the Public Prosecutor of Santiago; and with certain suspicions of misinformation and fraud.

This case has been with that of Enron, where the incentive of bonds for purchase were also used. The monthly "profits" of La Polar have been inflated at the cost of fraudulently adding to the debt of consumers and taking them as "income" for the company.

How we found out
The case exploded when the National Consumer Service (Sernac) realised that complaints against La Polar increased abnormally every day. This led the government agency raising a class action against the company, to which five thousand consumers have already rallied.

At the same time, a minor shareholder of the commercial store had asked a group of lawyers to investigate the company's financial situation, which uncovered only the tip of the iceberg of deceit and fraud to consumers and the stock exchange where shares were traded.

Questions
Today, analysts are asking: if a minor shareholder suspected something was wrong, how is it possible that the irregularities were ignored by the board of La Polar? And where was the investigation by regulating bodies?

The answer to the latter question is that there is NO regulation of store credit cards in Chile, even though they outnumber bank credit cards (58% vs. 42%).

Added to this last point is the lack of timely control by the Superintendent of Values and Insurance (which had just reported the case to the Public Prosecutor) and possibly by other bodies.

The company offers...compensation?
The chairman of La Polar, Heriberto Urzúa, said it will remove all charges to defaulting customers, interest rate penalties, fines and registration with Dicom from 21 June. The "compensation" that would be offered to consumers would cut their “debt” according to the haste with which they pay ...

Naturally Sernac considers this proposal absolutely inadequate and the class action will go ahead.

Several key issues have now surfaced:
- The lack of regulation of store credit cards in the first place (again, the market's inability to self-regulate)
- The lack of information about the debt that each consumer has with all stores (consolidated debt)
- The high interest rates on credit cards, and the maximum conventional rate to be paid if there is a delay. A rate over 30% (currently over 40%) should not be payable, according to several economists. This would mean it would not be consumers who are "risky", but rather the high interest rates.
- The way that many unscrupulous retail companies encourage consumer debt by granting credit facilities in order to profit from the debts of the thousands who can’t afford to pay it back.

If decision makers are not able to see the reality of the Chilean financial retail market after this scandal, the promotion of companies that are completely dehumanised and outside the law will continue, with huge costs for consumers and society as a whole.

Consumer rights have been tested in this extreme example where the Consumers International campaign for stable, fair and competitive financial services is realised to its full meaning.

Original source in Spanish

1 comment:

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