So it was that Wanda Champion started going to a payday lender for a loan to tide her over. At first she managed to stay ahead of the payments. She would finish or almost finish paying off one loan, then she would take out another. Soon she was borrowing from another lender. Then she started falling behind on the interest and fees she owed.
Champion is in trouble financially because she is indebted to a business chartered under an insidious piece of legislation called the Alabama Deferred Presentment Act, a legal mechanism that allows for effective annual interest rates of 456 percent on payday loans.
Now she is in debt to two payday lenders that have sent her to their collections departments. They want their money, but Wanda Champion clearly doesn't have much to give them.
At age 54, Champion has been on disability since 1992 for, she says, emotional distress and seizures she suffers from time to time. She hasn't worked since the late 1980s, when she was employed through the Opportunity Center, an organization that trains and helps disabled people find work. Her family is in no position to assist, she explains, with many problems of their own, including sickness and the threat of jail time looming over one relative.
Her living conditions are not stellar, but have improved recently. In April, the power company ran electricity to her home. Before the lights came on, she didn't have a telephone or running water. But the $1,000 mobile home she purchased with $100 down was better than her former residence, a school bus.
Now she spends her time reading over letters from payday lenders in Oxford and Anniston, talking to "a New York lawyer," as she describes him, about a $700 balance she owes, and going to the post office and buying money orders to mail off to an office suite in Lancaster, N.Y.
All the while, she's still struggling to keep up payments on an auto title loan she took out on her 1990 Buick LeSabre with a title loan company on South Quintard, as well as an outstanding loan from an Oxford lender.
"It is easy to get in bad shape with those payday loan people," she explained recently. "You can try to work something out with them, but all they want is money, whether you have it or not."
She is in a fix, financially. From the few hundred dollars she receives each month from disability, she has to give up an increasing amount to keep the debt collectors at bay.
Her situation is not uncommon. Tom Keith, an attorney with Legal Services in Huntsville who specializes in predatory lending cases, says he sees cases like Champion's frequently.
"I can't imagine what's she's going through," he said. "That big city lawyer who keeps calling her, well that guy is almost certainly from a collection agency and he's there to intimidate her. My temptation is to advise her to tell him to go to hell. She has more protections than she realizes, and these people basically are brainwashing her, taking advantage of her willingness to pay.
"I really don't know how to describe what is happening to her and so many people like her," he said, "except that this is so contrary to the principles we all grew up with. Somehow we let things change in recent years, we gave that up and we let greed take over. That's the only explanation."
Keith added that Champion and a lot of people in her position have a number of exemption rights that can protect some of their assets, including their homes and a percentage of their wages, rights that most people don't even realize they have.
Since Champion doesn't currently have an attorney, Keith closed by suggesting she find one.
Wanda Champion's first concern, however, isn't her well-being; it is people just like her across Alabama who are suffering through the same kind of situation.
In a heart-felt letter to this newspaper in March, Champion asked what laws the state Legislature might pass to "protect the consumers against these easy cash, payday lenders?"
"It has been a hard lesson," she writes, "and a costly one."
Unfortunately for Champion and thousands of Alabamians in similar financial straits, the Legislature ignored her pleas.