By Don Bolding
Killeen Daily Herald
About 200 soldiers and 50 others attended a financial readiness seminar planned by the Fort Hood Herald and the Central Texas Better Business Bureau to receive information from BBB Military Line program director Holly Petraeus and others on how to protect themselves against predatory lenders and scammers.
Petraeus, wife of Gen. David Petraeus, described herself as "an Army wife of 32 years."
"It makes me mad when people pick our soldiers' pockets," she said.
She talked about companies purporting to sell Iraqi dinars and military ribbon sets who simply took orders and never delivered. She also talked about auto loans at exorbitant rates and the prevalence of identity theft victimizing deployed soldiers, advising her audience to put an alert on credit accounts when they go overseas.
She told stories of "investments" promoted in makeshift classrooms by promoters who do not have securities licenses.
Among her main targets was the payday lending industry – the subject of a Defense Department regulation just put into effect to limit all interest and fees to a "military APR" of 36 percent total of all interest and fees.
The regulation also covers auto loans and tax refund anticipation loans. Lenders must give military personnel or immediate family members applying for a loan a statement of compliance.
Petraeus said many soldiers are trapped in a "cycle of debt" by excessive interest rates that draw them back to refinance on the same principal. She said 90 percent of borrowers do it at least once, and two-thirds repeat the process multiple times, so that the effective interest rate might be several hundred percent with slim chances of repayment. The process endangers soldiers' core possessions, hurts their home lives and jeopardizes combat readiness.
The BBB's Military Line, which provides educational materials and works with military consumer, legal and family assistance offices, began in 2003. Its Internet presence is bbb.org/army or the name of any service.
BBB Central Texas executive director Richard Kitterman invited attendees to call him about any problems, saying the national BBB investigated 25,000 complaints in 2006 and has fielded 35,000 so far in 2007.
"It's not that we've found that many more violations, but we're just capturing more than were already there," he said.
He said BBB members, who must pass various tests of legitimacy to join in the first place, have to resolve complaints against them or risk losing their membership.
BBB members are entitled to post membership decals in their windows.
"It's not one of my favorite parts of my job, but I carry a scraper with me to remove decals. We remove members every month," Kitterman said.
He said some of the worst credit abuses he sees now are in cell phones, autos and real estate.
"Both legitimate and abusive lenders understand that payrolls at big bases represent massive amounts of money," Petraeus said. "Unfortunately, too many of the wrong kind set up right outside the gates."
She said that in North Carolina, several auto dealers wrote their own code of ethics and stigmatized the shady ones, who refused to sign it.
She said teens are a favorite target of identity thieves because their credit records are usually "a clean slate." She also said teens' innocence makes them vulnerable.
"They think texting everybody on the planet is a cool thing to do until they wind up with a whopping cell phone bill."
Kitterman advised anyone in financial trouble to talk to lenders if a repossession or foreclosure is imminent.
"Lenders don't want a repossession any more than you do, because they lose money. They'll do their best to work with you on some suitable arrangement. We're developing a class about that."
Other speakers were Geraldine Walsh of SaveAndInvest.org and Sarah Shirley of Military Saves. Walsh described various methods of increasing wealth through savings and investment programs.
Co-sponsors of Friday's event were Fort Hood Family Housing, Fort Hood National Bank and the Central Texas Workforce Centers. Some of them sponsored booths along with Killeen.com, the Central Texas Business Resource Center, First National Bank Texas, Harper-Talasek Funeral Home, Clearwire, the Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce and Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
Killeen Daily Herald advertising director Tiffany Muller, a principal organizer, quoted one soldier as saying she thought a similar program should be quarterly and mandatory for all young military personnel.
"This provides key information to help with investing and financial knowledge," the soldier said.
Contact Don Bolding at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (254) 501-7557