Stopping predatory behaviour

Driving around the streets of Dunedin are mobile trucks offering household goods to people predominantly on fixed incomes, such as benefits.

The goods are easily available off the truck, but they come at a cost which is hidden but damaging for those who take up the offer of an appliance delivered right to their door.

Those vulnerable purchasers cannot usually borrow from a bank because of a poor credit history or a lack of means of repayment.

If they are sitting at home watching television, they are blasted with advertisements telling them just how easy it is to borrow anywhere from $100 to a $1000. Load the app on their mobile phone and the money can be there within a few hours.

In Auckland, three mothers struggling under almost $150,000 of debt are among the homeless families falling prey to loan sharks. Te Puea Memorial Marae has taken in more than 30 homeless families in the past year to help find them housing and get their lives back on track. The task is much harder because of the mountain of debt.

It is worth recalling that, although New Zealand did not suffer the same consequences of the global financial crisis as seen in other countries, there were repercussions from the high level of debt some households held.

During the good times, Auckland car dealers parked the latest people movers in South Auckland malls, offering generous terms to mainly Polynesian families who again were not likely to be able to borrow from banks.

Sales were spectacular and the loans were on-sold to finance companies from which high interest was charged, often without any principal being repaid.

When hard times arrived, cars were repossessed from the families struggling to make ends meet, finance companies found themselves without income and eventually, having to close. Some high-profile court cases provided some retribution to the former directors of those companies but not enough to repay the misery families conned into the purchases faced.

Now, Commerce Minister Kris Faafoi wants to do something about loan sharks and the measures he intends include caps on interest rates and fees, and increased penalties for irresponsible lending.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment has provided a raft of measures to Mr Faafoi in a discussion paper reviewing the Credit Contracts and Consumer Finance Act.

The recommendations include increased licensing for lenders and introducing more prescriptive requirements for affordability assessments.

As the MP for Mana, and a former television journalist, Mr Faafoi is probably aware of the damage which can be done in communities struggling to pay off usury rates of interest.

The minister says it is becoming clear the 2015 amendments to consumer finance laws do not go far enough and it is time to finish the job to protect the most vulnerable.

As far back as 2003, the late Jim Anderton, a former consumer affairs minister, was arguing the case to rein in fraudsters who were charging excessive interest rates, imposing exorbitant fees and requiring security out of proportion to the loan.

Fifteen years later, not much has changed.It has been argued fringe lenders can perform a valuable social service by providing money to people in need of urgent finance to pay for weddings, funerals or other family-oriented events. That will be true, and if those lenders can provide the finance at reasonable rates of interest, the proposals likely to be adopted by Mr Faafoi will not harm their businesses.

The MBIE review says often people seek high-cost loans to protect their privacy instead of asking for assistance from Work and Income. The Government is changing the way Work and Income operates, promoting a friendly face to its clients.

As with most things, a holistic approach will be required to ease the financial burden from some of the most vulnerable families in the country.

The MBIE discussion paper is open for submissions until August 1, enough time for many New Zealanders to have their say on an issue destroying some communities.


Usury is a form of extortion.