- - Monday, December 26, 2011

HELENA, Mont. — An Indian reservation in the heart of Montana’s farm country may seem an unlikely place to borrow a quick $600, but the Chippewa Cree tribe says it has already given out more than 121,000 loans this year at interest rates that can reach a whopping 360 percent.

As more states pass laws to rein in lenders who deal in high-interest, short-term loans, Indian tribes like the Chippewa Cree and their new online-lending venture, Plain Green Loans, are stepping in to fill the void.

The Internet lets them reach beyond the isolated Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation to borrowers across the nation, while tribal immunity has allowed them to avoid bans and interest-rate caps several states have set.

To Neal Rosette, Plain Green Loans CEO and the Chippewa Cree’s former executive administrative officer, it’s a win-win. The online-lending venture is a resource for people who can’t or won’t borrow from banks, while it gives the tribe, suffering with 40 percent unemployment on the reservation, a steady revenue stream and jobs.

Mr. Rosette said this model could be the successor to gambling for tribes looking for an economic boost. Some tribes have owned online-lending businesses for several years, and Mr. Rosette said the Chippewa Cree and three other tribes have started the Native American Lenders Alliance to encourage more.

“I believe this is the new outlook for Indian Country, not just Rocky Boy,” Mr. Rosette said. “We are sovereign nations, and we have the ability to create our own laws that regulate our businesses such as this.”

That’s a problem for consumer groups and the states that have tried to bring such lending under control. The issue with these loans, consumer advocates say, is that their high interest rates make it too easy for a borrower to become trapped in a cycle of debt as they have to borrow more to repay their original loans.

Forty-two states and the District of Columbia have taken different regulatory approaches, from outright bans to interest-rate caps. Montana voters last year passed a ballot initiative that capped such loans at a 36 percent annualized interest rate, which has led to a nearly 83 percent drop in so-called deferred deposit lenders, according to Montana banking and financial institutions director Melanie Griggs.

“When they were getting it from brick-and-mortar businesses, it was easy to monitor how many people were getting payday loans. Now that it’s all on the Internet, it’s harder to monitor,” Ms. Griggs said.

The Chippewa Cree tribe says its loans are not payday loans, those two-week loans with annualized interest rates of more than 600 percent or more. Instead, the tribe says, its highest annualized interest rate is 360 percent. Payments are made over a period of months, usually in monthly or biweekly installments.

By any account, those rates are still very high. By the company’s own example, a first-time borrower who takes out a $600 loan would end up paying $1,261.32 over 12 biweekly payments.

As long as it doesn’t make any loans to Montana residents, state prosecutors plan to let Plain Green Loans and the Chippewa Cree tribe be.

“We haven’t looked specifically at the tribe,” said Assistant Attorney General Jim Molloy. “We’ve not pursued it based on the understanding with the tribe that they’re not lending to Montanans.”

Other states have entered legal battles with lending businesses owned by tribes. A closely watched case is playing out now in Colorado, where the state is attempting to sue Western Sky Financial, an online lender owned by North Dakota’s Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

Other legal battles are being fought or have been fought in California, West Virginia, Missouri, New Mexico and Maryland, creating an unsettled regulatory environment, said Jean Anne Fox, director of financial services at Consumer Federation of America, a consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

“It’s a real threat to the ability of state regulators to enforce the loan market to police caps and other consumer protection measures,” Ms. Fox said.

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