Retailer That Overcharged, Then Sued Military Personnel Is Going Out Of Business

USA DiscountersA year ago, Virginia-based USA Discounters was in the spotlight after the supposedly discount retailer — which had several locations adjoining military bases and directly marketed its financing to servicemembers — was criticized for charging ridiculously high prices on its products and then suing soldiers in such a way that they could rarely defend themselves in court. The retailer then changed its name to USA Living and promised to not be so evil, even though the lawsuits continued. Now comes news that the retailer is going to close up shop for good.

ProPublica’s Paul Kiel, who has been driving the reporting on USA Discounters, writes that the chain is now holding “going out of business” sales at the seven locations that currently remain open. Most of the retailer’s stores were located near military bases.

For those new to this story, USA Discounters marketed itself as a low-cost financing option for military personnel and their families, but like many other rent-to-own and installment-payment retailers, USA Discounters was actually marking up products much higher than other stores.

A $329 iPad was listed at $699; a laptop that would cost you (at most) $650 elsewhere was listed at $1,799 by the store. With interest on the monthly installments, customers ended up paying even more. We found a TV ($960 on Amazon) that would have ultimately cost a USA Discounter customer $2,256 — and that doesn’t include things like the “warranty fee,” “credit life insurance,” “credit property insurance,” plus taxes and “specialist fees” charged to servicemembers. Last August, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reached a $400,000 settlement, including $350,000 in refunds to customers, over this illegal specialist fee.

That $650 laptop mentioned above? The ultimate price tag was $2,993. When he couldn’t keep up with the $130/month payments, he was sued by the retailer… in Virginia, more than 1,500 miles away from where he lived. Since he couldn’t make the trip to appear in court, USA Discounters was awarded a default judgment of $8,626.

Since 2006, USA Discounters has filed more than 13,470 of these lawsuits, winning almost all of them.

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), gives active duty servicemembers the right to defend themselves in court, but does not specify where lawsuits must be filed. Thus, USA Discounters filed many of its complaints in the same two courts in Virginia.

Why Virginia?

The SCRA also says there must be a court-appointed attorney to represent servicemembers who aren’t there to represent themselves, but Virginia courts allow the creditor to suggest which attorney should be appointed. Not surprisingly, USA Discounters often selected the same attorney to represent absent servicemembers.

And that lawyer’s only obligation, as he would advise defendants who likely had little idea what was going on, “is to review your response and request an additional stay or continuance if I feel it is appropriate given your answers.”

USA Discounters and similar lawsuit-happy installment retailers target servicemembers for a few reasons. First, many younger soldiers come from lower-income backgrounds and/or have little knowledge of or experience with the risks of financing a purchase. Second, military personnel could use allotments to direct some of their pay directly to the retailer. A new rule now prohibits retailers from accepting allotments, a fact that the CFPB is actively reminding stores of.

Finally, it’s easy for a creditor to garnish the wages of a federal employee. USA Discounters had seized more soldiers’ pay than any other company in the country.

In addition to no longer being able to accept allotments, USA Discounters is facing legal challenges, in the form of a class-action lawsuit alleging “unconscionable sales practices and usury,” and a lawsuit filed by Colorado’s attorney general. North Carolina’s AG is also investigating the retailer.