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Pension-advance firms targeted by N.Y. regulators

Regulators say that high-cost pension advances threaten older Americans’ retirement savings.

Odessa American via Associated Press/File 2013

Regulators say that high-cost pension advances threaten older Americans’ retirement savings.

NEW YORK — New York’s top banking regulator has begun an investigation into pension-advance firms, the lenders that woo retirees to sign over their monthly pension checks in return for cash.

The Department of Financial Services sent subpoenas to 10 companies Tuesday.

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Federal and state authorities say pension advances are actually loans that require customers to sign over all or part of their pension checks in exchange for a lump-sum payment. The high-cost loans, the authorities say, threaten to erode the retirement savings of a growing number of older Americans, thrusting retirees deep into debt.

Benjamin M. Lawsky, who heads the agency, calls pension advances ‘‘nothing more than payday loans in sheep’s clothing.’’ The agency acted at the urging of the office of New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo.

A review by The New York Times of more than two dozen loan contracts found that the loans, once fees are factored in, can come with effective interest rates ranging from 27 to 106 percent — critical information that is not disclosed either in ads or contracts.

The Department of Financial Services is examining whether the companies have flouted state usury laws and whether the loans violate a federal law that restricts how military pensions can be used, according to the people with knowledge of the matter. The agency is also investigating whether the lenders dupe retirees into signing up for the loans by disguising the soaring interest rates, the people said.

As the vast baby boomer generation heads toward retirement and a growing number of older Americans shoulder crippling debt burdens, the pension-advance firms are aggressively courting military veterans, teachers, firefighters, police officers, and others with a pitch that is hard to resist: Convert tomorrow’s pension income into hard cash.

Much like payday loans, which often target lower-income borrowers, pension loans can aggravate the distress of vulnerable elderly people who already are grappling with dwindling savings.

“Using deceptive practices to cheat people out of their pensions by enrolling them in backdoor high-interest loans will not be tolerated in our state,’’ Cuomo said in a statement.

The lenders, which operate largely outside of state and federal banking regulations, are drawing fresh scrutiny. The New York investigation follows examinations by the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and a Senate committee.

To escape state usury laws that cap loan rates, some pension advance firms insist their products are advances, not loans, according to the firms’ websites and federal and state lawsuits.

The firms zero in on military members, according to lawyers for service members. To go after military members, the lenders have to skirt a federal law that bars veterans from turning over pension payments to third parties. To sidestep the prohibition, the firms typically urge veterans to set up separate bank accounts, controlled by the firms, where the pension checks are deposited before being sent to the lenders, according to a review of the firms’ advertisements.

‘‘These companies are literally harvesting the hard earned pensions of seniors, military veterans, and other hard-working New Yorkers,’’ Cuomo said. He cautioned that ‘‘anyone seeking to prey on New Yorkers should know that we will use every tool at our disposal to aggressively pursue and put stop this fraud.’’

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