- Associated Press - Thursday, May 7, 2015

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - The Vermont House on Thursday approved a bill designed to crack down on what some see as abuses in the rent-to-own industry, as well as offering a range of other consumer protections.

The legislation, a version of which was passed previously by the Senate, sets new caps on the cash price that merchants can charge for their wares and calls for clearer consumer information on how the cost of a rent-to-own agreement compares with the cash price.

Critics of the rent-to-own industry, including Gov. Peter Shumlin and Attorney General William Sorrell, maintain that consumers often don’t understand that if they make it to the end of a rent-to-own contract, they often end up paying far more for a product than if it were bought for cash or on credit.

Industry officials contend that their business should not be compared to other types of retail because they offer a different set of services, including coming to pick up an item with no further cost to the consumer if the consumer decides he or she doesn’t need or want it any more.

Rep. Maureen Dakin, D-Colchester, said the bill aims for a better balance between business and consumer.

“Because few agreements result in actual ownership of the merchandise it is incumbent to provide protections from unreasonable interest rates for consumers while providing reasonable rates of return for the business,” she said as she introduced the bill to her House colleagues on Thursday.

Chris Curtis, an attorney with Vermont Legal Aid who had worked on the bill, called it “a big win for Vermont consumers.”

The bill requires consumers to be given information allowing them to compare the cost of an item through a rent-to-own contract and by paying a cash price. And it limits the cash price that rent-to-own stores can charge on various items, including 1.75 times the merchant’s cost for electronics, for example.

That did not sit well with Dwight Dumler, senior vice president with Rent-A-Center.

“The bill’s price restrictions are detrimental to competition and will result in fewer options for consumers,” Dumler said in an email. “We support the bill’s disclosure and transparency provisions. Clear and thorough disclosures benefit consumers and the industry.”

The measure was given preliminary approval on a voice vote; it is up for final action on Friday.

The House attached several other consumer protections to a rent-to-own bill sent to it by the Senate. If the Senate does not concur with the House changes, differences would have to be worked out in a conference committee.

Those included disclosure of potential costs to consumers by home security companies that provide automated calling services to police and fire departments. They also included giving Internet dating services new tools to help them prevent users from committing fraud against other users.


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