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Pension advance firms cheat retirees -U.S. lawsuit

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. regulators on Thursday filed a lawsuit accusing two companies of preying on retirees and military veterans by advancing high-cost loans disguised as pension advances, jeopardizing victims’ retirement savings.

The lawsuit against Pension Funding LLC and Pension Income LLC was brought by the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the New York State Department of Financial Services.

It accused the California-base companies and their principals of duping older Americans, mainly through online pitches, from 2011 through last December into redirecting pension checks over eight years in exchange for upfront cash.

Regulators said the companies claimed their advances lacked the borrowing costs associated with credit cards or home equity lines of credit, and advertised that “OUR PROGRAM IS NOT A LOAN.”

In fact, the regulators said the advances were loans with effective interest rates averaging 28.56 percent, including fees for the companies, sales agents, life insurance policies and a reserve to protect against borrowers who default on payments.

“The defendants used blatantly deceptive practices to harvest the hard-earned pensions of seniors and military personnel,” Anthony Albanese, acting New York superintendent of financial services, said in a statement.

Debt levels have risen at a faster rate for older Americans than for the overall population.

In households led by people 65 and older, the mean debt load rose to nearly $82,000 in 2011 from about $29,000 in 2000, Census Bureau data show.

Thursday’s lawsuit seeks to recoup illegal profits and impose civil fines. It was filed in the federal court in Santa Ana, California.

Pension Funding is based in Huntington Beach, California, near Los Angeles, while Pension Income is based in Lafayette, California, near San Francisco. Websites associated with both companies were inactive on Thursday.

Neither company could immediately be reached for comment.

In March, the California Commissioner of Business Oversight filed a “desist and refrain” order against them from operating as unlicensed finance lenders or brokers in that state.

Pension Funding and Pension Income were among at least 10 companies that received subpoenas from New York in 2013 over pension finance loans.

Albanese’s predecessor, Benjamin Lawsky, at the time said the loans “appear to be nothing more than payday loans in sheep’s clothing.”

Matt Anderson, a spokesman for Albanese, said the New York probe is continuing.

The case is Consumer Financial Protection Bureau et al v Pension Funding LLC et al, U.S. District Court, Central District of California, No. 15-01329. (Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Dan Grebler)