Wonga have said that they believe that APR is a poor measure of the true cost of short-term loans. As of November 2013, a loan of £100 over seventeen days (Wonga's average loan term) required £123.44 to repay. Wonga is a slang term of Romany origin for money, used in some parts of Britain since the 1980s.
The firm operates in the UK, South Africa, Canada, Spain, Germany and Poland. The company invented fully automated risk processing technology to provide short-term, unsecured personal loans online, including via tablet and mobile app. The service was launched in October 2007. The firm was the first to provide an instant lending application on the iPhone.
Consumer credit suppliers were regulated in the UK by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) until April 2014, and then by the new Financial Conduct Authority (FCA). The firm's lending practices have been controversial, and they have been criticised in Parliament and by the regulators, media and religious sources. In 2014 the firm was ordered by the FCA to pay compensation of £2.6m to borrowers for bad debt collection practices, including in 2010 sending and charging for letters purporting to be from law firms (which did not in fact exist) threatening legal action. The Guardian newspaper reported the head of the Law Society as saying that Wonga's activity, which he qualified as dishonest, could amount to blackmail, deception, and other breaches of the law. A formal police investigation for fraud was being considered as of 27 June 2014.
Wonga claims that its customers are "tech-savvy young professionals who previously used the banks to borrow money". It accepts that its APR is "not cheap" but claims that its typical customer is on a mid-level salary and is temporarily short of cash because of an unexpected bill, for example to buy a new central heating boiler or tickets to a music festival.
Dr Gathergood of the University of Nottingham described payday loan users as falling into two groups, those who have had a financial shock but can repay the money and those who were unable to control their expenditure, though he said lenders preferentially associated their clients with the first group. The committee also looked at credit unions. Mark Lyonette of Association of British Credit Unions said that although credit unions now provided 90 million loans in the United States, they were not able to match the "sophisticated automation and credit scoring behind the scenes" of the "high-tech, payday-lending Wonga model" though he welcomed the possibility of using Post Offices as a vehicle to expand the Credit Union market in the UK.
Wonga has said that most applicants are not credit-worthy enough to obtain a loan from the firm and it only lends to those with a good credit record. Some commentators, however, have warned that taking a loan from a payday lender can damage the customer's credit record and their ability to obtain a mortgage, even where the loan was repaid years ago. Ray Boulger of John Charcol, for instance, told BBC Newsnight that "Our experience is that mortgage lenders will often turn down requests for people who have had a payday loan...", and Robert Sinclair, Chief Executive of the Association of Mortgage Intermediaries, said "From a consumer perspective, anybody who takes out a payday loan is clearly showing some financial distress and existing lenders will think these consumers may be maxed out."
The firm claims its loans are often cheaper than unauthorised bank charges and although APR disclosure is mandatory, it is a poor comparison measure for short term loans. The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee heard evidence from consumer money expert Martin Lewis that the total cost of a payday loan was more useful than APR. Lewis calculated in his blog that at a compounding interest rate of 4,212%, a £100 loan that is not repaid would in seven years amount to more than the USA's entire national debt, however, he explained that his calculation "bears little resemblance to reality", because Wonga does not charge compound interest. He also explained that he had performed this calculation purely to raise awareness of the risks of payday loans and concluded by expressing the hope that his example would make people "think twice before getting payday borrowing". Wonga have stated that they stop charging interest altogether once a loan becomes more than 60 days overdue.
Wonga argue that their rates may be high but the amount charged is transparent and without lenders like them, borrowers would be forced to use illegal lenders. In April 2014, a loan shark in Manchester was jailed for illegal money lending and other offences despite claiming that his rates were lower than Wonga. His lawyer said: "Within his community there are large numbers of people who because of their debt history are very limited in terms of the places they can go, other than companies such as Wonga."
Defaults and renewal of loans
Screenshot from Wonga.com, 3 February 2014, showing the costs of a loan.
Wonga states that if the money is not available on the day a customer has nominated to pay it back, a £30 fee will be charged and interest will accrue for a maximum of 60 days and does not allow automatic "rolling over" of loans, limiting to specific requests and to a maximum of three instances in accordance with the Finance and Leasing Association lending code.
On 28 November 2012, following concerns that small loans, intended to be short-term, could become prohibitively expensive, the government announced it would give the Financial Conduct Authority powers to prevent indefinite rolling over of loans and effectively limit charges.
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