All Kathleen Zane wanted to do was buy a couch. Instead, she says she ended up with $5,850 in debt and a personal loan with an annual interest of 29.99 per cent.
“I was crying,” Zane says of the moment she says she realized how high her interest rate was.
Debt from high-interest installment loans, a fairly new product which has gained popularity in recent years, is becoming increasingly common among Canadians with low credit scores or short credit histories. And critics say the loans can be as treacherous for consumers as payday loans.
Borrowers can only take out a maximum of $1,500 through a payday loan, notes Donna Borden, a national leader at anti-poverty group ACORN leader and acting chair of the organization’s the East York Chapter in Toronto.
“Now, if somebody wants more … then (lenders) just say, ‘Well, we’re providing installment loans,” she says.
ACORN says it has seen a 300 per cent increase in the share of borrowers taking out high-interest installment loans between 2016 and 2021.
Payday lenders are exempt from federal rules capping the maximum annualized interest at 60 per cent and can charge interest rates of up to 500 or 600 per cent. But they are also small, short-term loans — and often tightly regulated. Canadians cannot borrow more than $1,500 through a single payday loan and usually must pay the loan from their next paycheque, according to the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (FCAC).
High-interest installment loans, on the other hand, are subject to the 60 per cent limit on interest. But they also allow Canadians to borrow up to tens of thousands of dollars for terms of up to several years, sometimes resulting in consumers paying more in interest than they received through the loan payout.
The public profile of the lenders that offer high-interest personal loans is also often quite different from that of payday lenders. Zane’s loan, for example, is from Easyfinancial, a division of Goeasy, a Mississauga, Ont.-based alternative lender that counts more than 400 retail locations across Canada.
Goeasy, boasts an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau, awards for best corporate culture and place to work, and says it has raised more than $3.8 million to support the Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada and Habitat for Humanity. An Easyfinancial airy storefront on Toronto’s trendy Queen Street East features high ceilings, exposed brick interiors and a “Proudly Canadian” sign on the window.
In an email to Global News, Goeasy said its Easyfinancial loans help credit-challenged Canadians rebuild their credit profile until they can borrow at lower rates from banks and traditional lenders.
“With over 8.4 million Canadians with non-prime credit scores, our customers are hardworking everyday Canadians that have typically been turned down by banks and traditional lenders,” the company wrote. “Often met by life’s circumstances that have negatively impacted their credit, they turn to easyfinancial for financial relief and a second chance.”
Some payday lenders are also offering personal installment loans. On its website, for example, Money Mart mentions installment loans before its “cash-advance” loans, which work like a traditional payday loan.
The company did not respond to several requests for comment.
Traditional lenders, such as big banks, also offer installment loans but at much lower interest rates. However, people with low credit scores are often turned away.
Global News has interviewed borrowers who took out high-interest personal loans and reviewed their loan agreements. The documents all contain plain language that clearly lays out the terms of the loan. They also allow borrowers to repay part or all of the loan at any point as a lump sum without penalties.
But two of three borrowers told Global News they did not understand that the loans came with such high-interest rates. And two out of three borrowers said their lender proactively contacted them about taking on more debt just months after signing their first loan agreement. A third borrower said he filed a consumer proposal because he couldn’t keep up with his loan.
'I had no idea'
In Grimsby, Ont., Zane, a now-retired call-centre employee, says when she signed up for financing for a $1,466 couch from Surplus Furniture and Mattress Warehouse in November 2019, she says she didn’t understand she’d taken out a high-interest personal loan with Easyfinancial.
Her loan agreement shows she borrowed the amount for couch, an additional $395.50 and a fee of $102 for a total of just under $1,965. The loan had an annual interest rate of 29.99 per cent. The annual percentage rate (APR), which indicates the total cost of borrowing including interest and other charges, was just over 39 per cent.
Easyfinancial offers unsecured and secured personal loans, auto loans and financing for the purchase of goods and services through over 4,000 retail and merchants such as Surplus Furniture and Mattress Warehouse, the company told Global News via email.
The installment loans provided by Easyfinancial for purchase-financing are separate from a lease-to-own program for household goods such as furniture and appliances that is available through Easyhome, another division of Goeasy, the company said.
Zane says she doesn’t remember receiving communications from Easyfinancial until a few months after she bought her couch. Her first payment was due at the beginning of February.
In mid-March, though, just as Ontario went into lockdown due to the spread of COVID-19, Zane said she received a call from an Easyfinancial representative saying she’d been pre-approved to borrow up to around $5,000 and inquiring about whether she needed to borrow more.
At the time Zane says she, like several others of her co-workers, had just taken a leave of absence out of concern about contagion in the Barrie, Ont.-based call centre where she worked.
“I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I’m not going to get paid by anybody at my company … the government’s not going to pay me. So I better take out this loan because I have to pay the rent,'” Zane recalls.
At the time the federal government had not yet announced the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), the first of Ottawa’s COVID-19 income support benefits for individuals.
Zane’s second loan agreement with Easyfinancial shows she borrowed $5,850 with a loan term of 36 months and an APR of around 30 per cent. At the time, she was also dealing with her critically ill mother, who would pass away a few days later, she says. She says she did not realize what the conditions of the loan were until several months later, when she says she asked the company to provide details on the balance of her loan.
For months she says she had “no idea” of how expensive the loan was.
Easyfinancial said it provides “a copy of the full loan agreement either in printed form, or electronically, to every customer immediately after signing.”
In Scarborough, Ont., Salvatore Costa, who works as a caregiver for mentally and physically disabled adult men, also says he didn’t understand the terms of the high-interest installment loan he took out with EasyFinancial in December 2018.
Costa says he needed money for a second-hand car and the first and last months of rent on a new apartment after moving to the Greater Toronto Area from Regina. He’d seen a TV commercial for Easyfinancial, so he headed to one of the lender’s retail locations and signed an agreement to borrow just under $7,420.
The loan had an APR of more than 47 per cent and a term of 3.5 years, according to documents reviewed by Global News. Costa’s total interest obligation was $7,837, more than the principal he had borrowed.
Costa says he didn’t check the details of the agreement and felt rushed into signing.
“I didn’t do my due diligence like I should have before signing anything, but everything was like ‘rush, rush, rush,'” he says.
Eventually, Costa says he couldn’t afford the loan’s $234 biweekly payments and filed a consumer proposal to reduce his debt load. He says he didn’t fully understand the conditions of his loan until the licensed insolvency trustee who administered the proposal explained them to him.
Costa, who says he is still paying down part of his debt to Easyfinancial, says filing the proposal came with a sense of relief.
“I was overjoyed that there was a deal with the stuff,” he says.
Easyfinancial said that, either in person or over the phone, it verbally walks customers through “all key elements of the loan, including the interest rate and the total cost of borrowing, which are disclosed in plain language on the first page.”
'They keep telling me refinance your loan'
In North Etobicoke, Ont., Patricia Edwards says her current 36-month loan with Money Mart for $4,850 at an interest rate of 46.9 per cent represents her second refinance agreement with the company.
Edwards, who currently works as a cleaner for a grocery store chain, says she initially took out a $1,500 high-interest installment loan with Money Mart to help her two daughters pay rent while the younger one looked for a job after transitioning off welfare.
Since then, she says, she has received regular communication from the company asking her whether she’d like to refinance and borrow additional funds.
“They keep telling me, ‘Oh, refinance your loan, you’ll save some money,'” she says.
After borrowing the initial $1,500 in the spring of 2019, Edwards says she refinanced and borrowed additional funds later in the year to buy Christmas presents for her family. Then on April 1, 2020, worried about her ability to pay her bills during the pandemic, she refinanced again borrowing just under $2,840 on top of $2,010 to extinguish her previous loan.
“I said, it’s best to have some extra money in the bank,” she recalls.
Global News has only been able to review Edwards’ April 1 loan agreement, which shows her payment will total just over $9,000 by the end of the term.
Edwards says she’s now borrowing to pay for public transportation to get to work or to cover her rent.
“It’s an endless cycle. It’s like being in a tornado and you’re just whirling around month after month,” she says. “It’s never a catch-up.”
Breakneck growth, little oversight
ACORN’s 2021 report on high-interest loans found that, out of 376 low-income survey respondents across Canada, 70 per cent had used payday loans and 45 per cent had taken out at least one high-interest installment loan.
The share of borrowers with costly installment loans had more than tripled since the organization took a similar survey in 2016, according to the report.
Between 2016 and 2020, Easyfinancial parent company Goeasy saw its annual earnings after expenses skyrocket from $33.2 million to $117.6 million, a 250 per cent increase.
Boren links the breakneck growth of lenders like Easyfinancial to a lack of regulation targeting high-interest personal loans.
While nine out of 13 provinces have regulations specifically targeting payday loans, “far fewer” provinces have specific rules around other forms of high-cost lending such as installment loans, the ACORN report notes.
Only Alberta and Manitoba have regulations in place for high-cost credit, while B.C. is in the process of establishing stronger regulations protecting financial consumers. Quebec, on the other hand, is unique among the provinces for having set the maximum allowable annual interest rate at 35 per cent, far lower than the federal threshold.
ACORN is asking that Ottawa lower the federal ceiling on interest rates to 30 per cent from 60 per cent for installment loans.
In its 2021 federal budget, the Trudeau government said it would launch consultations on “lowering the criminal rate of interest in the Criminal Code of Canada applicable to, among other things, installment loans offered by payday lenders.” The Liberal party reiterated that promise in its 2021 election campaign a few months later.
Easyfinancial, for its part, does not offer payday loans and includes a clause in its loan agreements demanding that its borrowers pay off any debt from payday loan using the proceeds of their new installment and refrain from using payday lenders until they’ve paid off their installment loan.
“We believe that it is in a customer’s best interest to pay off any outstanding payday loans and avoid using them in the future,” Goeasy told Global News.
Goeasy and other alternative lenders Global News has spoken to in the past argue they are a better alternative to payday lenders for borrowers who cannot get credit at mainstream financial institutions such as banks and credit unions. Goeasy noted the APR on its loans ranges from 9.9 per cent to 46.9 per cent, adding that the APR for a payday loan is more than 200 per cent.
Goeasy also said another “key point of differentiation” is that debt repayments made for installment loans are reported to credit bureaus whereas repayment for payday loans are not.
“That is extremely important for consumers with non-prime credit scores, as it helps them rebuild their credit so they can reduce their cost of borrowing over time and get back to qualifying at a major bank,” it said via email.
The company added that since 2016 it has reduced its weighted average interest rate by almost 30 per cent and now offers the vast majority of its loans at interest rates below its maximum stated rate. Sixty per cent of its customers improve their credit score and a third of them are able to access credit from mainstream lenders within 12 months of borrowing through one of Goeasy’s divisions.
But Canadians who have no credit history or want to rebuild their credit score can do so through a secured credit card, without taking out an expensive secured savings loan, licensed insolvency trustees have previously told Global News.
Global News reporting also indicates alternative lenders don’t always grant a “cooling off” period for installment loans during which borrowers can return the funds and cancel the loan if they change their minds. Many provinces require this of payday lenders by law, according to the FCAC.
Goeasy said it provides customers with a cooling-off period of 10 days. However, Global News could not find a mention of this in the three Ontario-based loan agreements it reviewed from the company.
The company said that the cooling off period is a standard benefit provided by provincial consumer protection legislation but that not all provincial guidelines require a corresponding clause in the loan contract itself.
Goeasy also said it highlights the cooling period in a new version of its easyfinancial website.
Borden, who says her own experience borrowing through a high-interest installment loan led her to join ACORN years ago, says another issue is a lack of recourse for consumers who have grievances linked to the costly loans.
“I had nowhere to complain,” she says.