NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. authorities on Wednesday launched a broad offensive against abusive online pay lenders, arresting three people tied to the industry, including a race car driver, for allegedly exploiting more than 5 million cash-strapped consumers.
Prosecutors said Scott Tucker, who competes on U.S. and European racing circuits, ran a $2 billion enterprise that used sham relationships with Native American tribes to claim immunity from state enforcement actions over its lending practices.
An indictment filed in federal court in Manhattan said Tucker earned hundreds of millions of dollars in profits, spending the money on luxury homes, cars, jewelry, a private plane and his professional racing team, Level 5 Motorsports.
The charges came amid U.S. efforts to crackdown on abusive practices by payday lenders, which provide small extensions of credit that borrowers agree to repay in a short time, such as when they next receive a paycheck.
The companies say they help struggling consumers, but critics say borrowers end up with large debt loads due to high interest rates, fees and loan rollovers. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia prohibit payday loans.
Along with Tucker, the indictment also charged Timothy Muir, a lawyer who worked with Tucker’s Overland Park, Kansas-based company, AMG Services Inc, which had 600 employees.
Prosecutors said Tucker’s enterprise from 1997 to 2013 exploited 4.5 million people while doing business as Ameriloan and One Click Cash.
After several states sued, prosecutors said Tucker entered into sham relationships with Native American tribes including the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma to claim sovereign immunity.
Two corporations the Miami Tribe controlled have agreed to forfeit $48 million in a non-prosecution deal, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said.
Another indictment charged Richard Moseley for running a fraudulent $161 million online payday lending enterprise from Kansas City, Missouri, through offshore companies.
All three men were accused of racketeering violations for scheming to collect unlawful debts through loans with 700 percent or more interest rates.
Federal Bureau of Investigation agents arrested Tucker, 53, and Muir, 44, in Kansas, and Moseley, 68, in Missouri. Each was released on bail later on Wednesday.
Lawyers for Tucker and Muir did not respond to requests for comment. Marilyn Keller, Moseley’s lawyer, said Moseley would plead not guilty.
The Federal Trade Commission sued Tucker in 2012 and is seeking $1.32 billion from him and his deceased brother’s estate. It has obtained $25.5 million in settlements with entities including AMG Services.
The cases in U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, at U.S. v. Tucker et al, No. 16-cr-091, and U.S. v. Moseley, No. 16-cr-079.
Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Bill Trott, Chizu Nomiyama and Leslie Adler