3 On Your Side Investigates: Retailer of Last Resort - MSNewsNow.com - Jackson, MS

3 On Your Side Investigates: Retailer of Last Resort

JACKSON, MS (Mississippi News Now) -

One of the country's biggest retailers keeps charging inflated prices for furniture, refrigerators, and appliances, and Mississippi lawmakers are doing very little to stop it. Customers say they've been served more than just high prices.

Complaints filed across the country allege Rent-A-Center's debt collection tactics border on harassment, leaving it, for many, a retailer of last resort.

Three On Your Side teamed up with our parent company Raycom Media and Nerdwallet to investigate the country's largest rent-to-own company. Here's what we found: a loosely-regulated industry that preys on the poor.

We looked into more than three thousand complaints filed with the Federal Trade Commission, plus attorneys general in 15 states and found countless examples of alleged price gouging and harassment.

In Mississippi -- home to 29 Rent-A-Centers -- we tracked 40 different products to see if those claims were true.

In August, those prices showed -- on average -- customers who paid 90 days same as cash ended up paying almost double what the same product would cost at Amazon or Walmart.

Sign up for a weekly or monthly payment and you'd pay almost three times more.

Jessica Gonzalez bought a used bedroom set and washer at a Miami Rent-A-Center. But when she missed her payment, an employee showed up at 8 in the morning, ready to collect a $70 payment, one day late.

"I was scared to open the door when people knocked," said Gonzalez. "They would bang so hard, I would feel like they were going to break the window."

Gonzalez eventually ended up filing a harassment suit against the company.

One of her references even endured months of unwanted calls -- repeatedly being told to have his friend pay up.

"They would call me like daily, every single day. I didn't miss no payments.  But it sure as hell felt like if I was the one, like if I was missing payments on something," said Joseph Arauz.

How does the company get away with this? Unlike banks or other creditors, Rent-A-Center isn't regulated by the federal government, instead only loosely limited by state laws.

"Not having safeguards does also cause part of this problem," said Better Business Bureau of Mississippi CEO John O'Hara.

O'Hara said nationwide, customers have filed more than 1,400 complaints against Rent-A-Center in the last three years. 

Almost half of those deal with pricing.

"The furnitures are selling for over three times what it's worth if not four times what it's worth. So, it's price gouging," Gonzalez said.

But O'Hara says there are no federal laws protecting consumers when it comes to prices unless they sell a product that's used and call it "new."

"Anybody can charge what they want for an item. Consumers need to know what the market is. And today, the great equalizer is the Internet," said O'Hara.

For those with no credit and few options, it's their only choice.

Still, Gonzalez wouldn't do it again.

"The embarrassment we went through, the pain we went through, the harassment, it felt like stalking. We did not deserve that for being late $70," said Gonzalez.

For five weeks, we asked the nationwide retailer for an on-camera interview.

They sent this statement by email instead.

"Our mission is to improve our customers' quality of life, providing access to durable goods for cash- and credit-constrained consumers and serving as a welcome hand up amid a sea of thumbs down."

Only 11 states have laws that limit how much Rent-A-Center and other companies can charge for rent-to-buy products.

Mississippi isn't one of them.

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