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THE FINE PRINT

Rent-a-Center to pay more than $8 million to settle claims of abusive conduct toward poor consumers

The Rent-a-Center on Broadway in Somerville. Rent-a-Center, one of the country’s largest rent-to-own consumer goods companies, will pay a $8.75 million fine to the state to settle allegations that it engaged in a pattern of abusive misconduct targeting low-income communities.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Rent-a-Center, one of the country’s largest rent-to-own consumer goods companies, will pay a $8.75 million fine to the state to settle allegations that it engaged in a pattern of abusive misconduct targeting low-income communities.

The office of Attorney General Andrea Joy Campbell alleged that Rent-a-Center “filed criminal charges as a means of debt collection, engaged in harassing, obscene, and abusive collection calls, and threatened repossession against consumers who missed rental payments on household items and goods,” according to a press release.

In addition to paying the fine, Rent-a-Center will make “significant changes to its business practices” to comply with the state consumer protection laws, including fair debt collection and repossession practices, the press release says.

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Texas-based Rent-a-Center (which recently changed its name to Upbound Group) typically rents household goods, including furniture, electronics, and appliances, to consumers.

Most customers are required to pay rent on the merchandise on a weekly or monthly basis, and have the opportunity to own the items after one to two years of paying rent, according to the settlement agreement.

When consumers fell behind on their rent, Rent-a-Center “used the criminal process, or the threat of arrest or prosecution, as a debt collection tool,” the settlement says.

In fact, Rent-a-Center filed “at least 951″ applications for criminal charges — larceny of rented property — against consumers in local courts, according to the settlement.

Complaints were filed “even in circumstances where [Rent-a-Center] lacked a reasonable basis for concluding that the consumer intended to permanently retain the property,” the settlement says.

Campbell’s office also alleged Rent-a-Center employees went to the homes of consumers, often unannounced, to collect payment or attempt to repossess rented merchandise.

In some instances, Rent-a-Center employees “pounded on doors and windows, turned door knobs to see if exterior doors were locked, and demanded to be let in,” the settlement says.

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These home visits sometimes led to “physical confrontations between consumers and [Rent-a-Center] employees and to [Rent-a-Center] employees removing all or certain parts of merchandise,” the press release says.

“I am proud of my team’s dedication in securing a settlement with Rent-A-Center that sadly utilized egregious tactics to target and exploit low-income communities for profit,” Campbell said in the press release.

“My office will continue to protect all consumers from harmful and exploitative practices by those who do business in our state,” she said.

The attorney general’s office is responsible for enforcing the state consumer protection act, “which prohibits unfair and deceptive acts and practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce.”

Under the terms of the settlement, Rent-a-Center agreed to pay the fine and change certain business practices “without admitting any facts, liability, or wrongdoing.”

Rent-a-Center, which operates 44 stores in Massachusetts, typically rents such items as mattresses, box springs, bed frames, dressers, couches, dining tables, televisions, laptops, tablets, cellphones, refrigerators, washing machines, and dryers.

Upbound Group released a statement saying, “We have cooperated with the Attorney General’s office since this matter was initiated in 2018 and are pleased that we have reached a resolution. We look forward to continuing to serve our customers and provide best-in-class lease-to-own solutions.”

Upbound Group reported $979.1 million in revenue for the quarter ending in September, representing a year-over-year decline of about 4.4 percent, according to YahooFinance.

The attorney general’s office is also responsible for enforcing the state debt collection regulations, which prohibits excessive debt collection calls to an individual consumer at home and work.

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The settlement requires Rent-a-Center to cooperate with the attorney general’s office to identify consumers affected by the company’s collection practices for possible restitution.

Consumers who believe they may have been subject to unfair and deceptive business practices may file a consumer complaint with the AG’s office.


Got a problem? Send your consumer issue to sean.murphy@globe.com. Follow him @spmurphyboston.