It began much like a classic film noir, with a man slowly driving through a seedy Louisiana neighborhood in the dark of night, peering into storefront windows.
The man was searching for clues, but not the kind in Raymond Chandler plots. Steve Graves was out looking for the tell-tale signs of neighborhoods in distress: the ones payday lenders plaster onto their windows.
A geographer with the instincts of a class “A” sleuth, Graves suspected widespread saturation of Louisiana’s poverty pockets by predatory payday lenders. Using GIS (geographic information systems) computer mapping skills beyond the reach of the average gumshoe, he soon had his proof.
In the process, he discovered swarms of such lenders around military bases, within easy striking distance of overextended military families in need of cash. “I was actually looking for casinos,” Graves recalled, “thinking the lenders would be there, but they were packed in next to Barksdale Air Force Base.”
After his arrival at Cal State Northridge in 2003, Graves began working with University of Florida law professor Christopher Peterson on landmark research into lenders targeting military bases. The resultant Ohio State Law Journal study, ultimately covering 20 states and more than 15,000 ZIP codes, touched a nerve in the media, in the military and in Congress.
Several states banned payday lenders altogether. Others restricted them. In October 2007 came what Graves considers “the big victory”: enactment of the Military Personnel Financial Services Protection Act prohibiting high-cost loans to military personnel. In California, the bill effectively slashed the maximum annual percentage rate on loans to military families from 459 percent to 36 percent.
“It’s been a crazy ride the last few years,” said Graves, the 2008 recipient of CSUN’s Preeminent Scholarly Publications Award. And it continues, as publications such as The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek follow with interest his exploration of payroll lending exploitation in other areas.
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