Blumenthal calls some layaway fees the equivalent of 'usury'

Hartford - First-year U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., returned to familiar territory Friday with a consumer alert from the state Capitol warning Connecticut shoppers to be mindful of fees tacked on to some holiday layaway programs.

The former attorney general said retailers such as Wal-Mart must do a better job of disclosing how layaway "service charges" would translate to customers paying very high annual interest rates. In some cases, he said, shoppers would be better off with putting the charges on a credit card.

"These interest rates are unconscionably high, and they're imposed under the guise of fees and other charges that take advantage of consumers hard hit by tough economic times," Blumenthal, a Democrat, said at a news conference in the Capitol complex. "We're not asking that layaway plans be abolished or eliminated, we're asking simply that there be full disclosure."

Wal-Mart and other large retailers have been bringing back layaway programs that they once eliminated as lower-income customers gained easier access to credit cards.

Blumenthal held up a "Let's Rock" singing Elmo doll that he said was purchased for $69 at Wal-Mart. To buy the doll on a layaway plan would require a 10 percent down payment and a $5 service fee.

The effective annual percentage rate, or "APR," for this purchase, after subtracting the down payment, would be 48 percent, according to The Day's calculation.

"That kind of excessive interest rate, which by the way would violate state usury laws in Connecticut and other states, is really a disservice to consumers," said Blumenthal, who has joined Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, in asking retailers to start displaying the fees associated with layaway programs as an annual percentage rate equivalent.

Blumenthal is also sending letters to Wal-Mart, Sears, Best Buy, Toys "R" Us and retailers' trade groups urging their cooperation. "If they fail to come clean with consumers, I'll ask the Federal Trade Commission to investigate," he said.

A Wal-Mart spokesman said the retailer brought back its layaway program this holiday season because customers asked for it.

"We believe layaway is a great option for many of our customers who do not have access to traditional lines of credit," said David Tovar, a vice president of communications. "We also believe customers who live paycheck-to-paycheck and may be without access to credit should have an affordable way to deliver Christmas for their families."

Blumenthal fielded several questions from reporters who noted his interest in a consumer protection matter that would seem better suited to the office of a serving attorney general. He said the layaway topic was recently brought to his attention at a public appearance and that his office has received calls from five to 10 constituents on the issue.

"It's a subject that has been put to me as a United States senator," Blumenthal said. "If it's potentially a violation of federal law and if it's anti-consumer, I'm going to tackle it."

He later added: "Consumer protection remains very much a passion and a focus for me. No question about it."

But the "Black Friday" message may have come too late for layaway shoppers; many layaway programs begin in early to mid-fall and finish a week or so before Christmas.

Representatives for the National Retail Federation did not return messages Friday seeking comment.

j.reindl@theday.com

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