Western Sky YouTube
On TV this summer, you might have seen this ad with a smiling young woman offering help for all those troublesome bills.
"The problem-solver from Western Sky. Get up to $10, 000 without collateral. Enough to pay off your payday advances, once and for all, " she says.
There's a beating drum in the commercial, presumably to drive home a point — Western Sky says it's 100 percent Native-American owned and therefore exempt from state laws banning high-cost loans.
But Benjamin Lawsky, superintendent of financial services for New York State, doesn't buy that argument. "These are companies looking to prey on people who in my opinion are some of the most vulnerable people in our society, " he says.
New York is one of 15 states that ban high-interest loans. This summer, Lawksy sent cease-and-desist letters to Western Sky and 34 other online lenders. He asked banks to block the companies from getting access to New Yorkers' bank accounts, and the state sued Western Sky for charging interest rates of more than 355 percent. The impact was immediate.
"It's a pretty nice, large, beautiful building, and right now it's empty, " Western Sky supervisor Tawny Lawrence said, while standing in the company's deserted call center on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in Eagle Butte, S.D.
Western Sky announced in September that it was laying off nearly 100 workers because of what it called "groundless overreach" by government regulators. Lawrence says jobs are scarce here, so people took the news hard.
"We sat down on the floor and then I told them. And Indian people don't cry loud, you know. So there was a lotta, lotta silent tears, " he says.
That's one of the ironies in the fight over payday lending. Some of those affected by the crackdown are the same low-wage workers regulators say are preyed upon by lenders. And it's not just Western Sky that stopped lending. Others companies have shut down, too.
"This is just simply in our mind a number of ... bureaucrats who decided that they didn't like the industry and were going to attempt to put us out of business, " says Peter Barden, a spokesman for the Online Lenders Alliance.
Online lending, which had been growing rapidly, could decline by some 20 percent, or $4 billion, this year, according to one analysis.
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