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YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Hidden in a digital landscape of “ones” and “zeros” are stalkers.

Payday lenders have expanded their operations from seedy stores outside military bases to increasingly sophisticated Internet-based solicitations that target servicemembers overseas.

And the unwary are the victims.

“In the past year, Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society Yokosuka has assisted 10 sailors with online payday lenders,” said Andrea Bowen, director for the society’s Yokosuka office. “Not only do they target servicemembers, but they prey on them.”

And once they hook someone, Bowen warned, that person will pay the price.

“No matter how good it looks, PDLs are never a good option,” she said. “Seventy-five percent of PDL customers are unable to repay their loans in two weeks and are forced to get roll-over loans totaling 400 percent APR (annual percentage rate) or higher.”

Bowen said it’s becoming a problem because payday lenders are now able to reach servicemembers overseas with e-mail loan offers.

A simple Internet search of “payday loans” will produce a wide range of links to online lenders. But Bowen said it’s the e-mail offers that are snagging people who otherwise might not ever consider a payday loan.

“You can’t always tell what some of the e-mails are until you open them,” Bowen said. “I started getting them around Christmas. They were decorated as if from Santa. That’s just wrong. And once you provide your account and routing number, they just pull money from your account.”

According to a Consumer Federation of America report, Internet payday lenders bypass state and consumer protection laws by locating their businesses in lax states or off-shore locations such as Grenada or Costa Rica. They are able to make loans without regard for protections of the borrower’s home state. And when laws are created to protect consumers, the lender simply sets up shop in another location.

Many people think payday loans are a problem limited to junior enlisted servicemembers with little money to spend, but a recent relief society case shows that’s not necessarily true.

In a letter to the relief society, a sailor who asked not to be named told a story of desperation after borrowing from a payday lender to help cover living expenses resulting from hurricanes that hit the southeastern U.S.

“I am a senior member in the military,” the letter states. “I started borrowing money from payday lenders to pay the bills.”

The sailor had several outstanding loans before transferring to Japan. Once in Japan, the person resorted to online payday loans to keep afloat. What began with a seemingly innocent $300 loan quickly threatened to destroy a family and a career.

“I [borrowed from] seven different payday lenders … Every two weeks I had to pay $930.00 in interest alone to satisfy the debt,” the sailor wrote “I was at risk of loosing everything … not to mention the overwhelming amount of stress it caused my family and I.”

The relief society was able to help the sailor, but not before a small fortune was wasted.

According to Bowen, the relief society and other military organizations like it should be at the top of the list of places to go for help. Not payday lenders.

“We caution our sailors about the dangers of spam e-mails,” said U.S. 7th Fleet spokesman Lt. Steve Curry. “We advise them of the dangers and risks in providing personal banking and other information and simply recommend they delete the e-mails.”

But sometimes people learn the hard way.

“My last command used to tell us not to use payday loans,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Aaron Buntin. “I did it a couple times. They automatically deduct money from your account … it messes you up on the next payday. They trap you by causing you to have to get another loan to make up for the first one. I had to stop.”

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