Google fails to stamp out short-term payday lending apps

Courtesy: TechRadar

In August, Google announced a global crackdown on Android apps that offer short-term loans, saying it wanted to protect consumers from what it called “deceptive and exploitative” terms.

But five months later, payday-style applications offering fast money for one or two weeks are still easy to find in many countries on Google Play, the company’s marketplace for Android apps. Some charge interest rates that can exceed 200% annualized.

Lending apps are particularly popular in developing nations such as Nigeria, India and Kenya, where millions of people don’t have bank accounts or credit cards but do have mobile phones. The epicenter is Kenya, where an explosion in mobile lending and little government oversight has effectively made Google the arbiter of which apps customers can choose.

Despite the ban on loans that have to be repaid in fewer than 61 days, many apps available through the Google Play store are offering shorter terms to Kenyans. Some lenders appear to be ignoring the rule, hoping Google, a division of Alphabet Inc., doesn’t notice. But there’s also confusion about whether the policy really prohibits short-term lending.

Dan Jackson, a Google spokesman, declined to explain why short-term lending apps are still featured. “When violations are found, we take action,” he said in a statement. He wouldn’t say how many such actions have been taken.

Branch International Ltd., a San Francisco-based startup that’s a major Kenyan lender, said it was told it could comply by offering both a longer-term option and a shorter-term one for each loan. “The 62-day loan is just one option, and they can choose shorter loans if they want,” said Mojgan Khalili, a Branch spokeswoman. Another California-based lender with a large Kenyan business, Tala, has a similar policy that it says complies with Google’s rules.

But Jackson insisted that the policy prohibits any apps offering short-term loans.

Other financial technology companies appear to have dealt with the new policy by adding language to their Google Play descriptions stating that they offer loans two months or longer. But users often post complaints on the site saying they can’t borrow for nearly that long.

Of the 10 most popular free Google Play apps in Kenya on Jan. 15, five were lending apps, according to a SimilarWeb ranking. All five claimed to offer loans of at least 61 days, and all of them fielded complaints from users about being offered much shorter terms.

One customer of the top-ranked app, iPesa, complained in January that while the Google Play description promised loans of more than 60 days, he was offered a shorter term. “You can’t keep repayment period at 14 days,” the customer wrote. “Who are you guys kidding?”

Nairobi-based iPesa didn’t respond to an email, a Facebook message or an inquiry through its customer-service phone line.

Kenya’s digital credit boom was made possible because a large share of the country’s population uses mobile-money accounts for daily payments and expenses. The most popular service, M-Pesa, was started more than a decade ago. That created an opening for online lenders pitching short-term loans that could be funded and repaid through phones.

Over the past few years, dozens of loan apps have sprung up in the east African nation. They offer short-term loans of as little as a few dollars at high-interest rates to everyone from office workers in Nairobi to village street vendors. Millions of Kenyans have borrowed.

A September study by MicroSave Consulting said that 91% of loans in Kenya in 2018 were digital. The apps are controversial, criticized by politicians for taking advantage of poor people.

“What the mobile lenders are doing is ripping off Kenyans,” Jude Njomo, a member of Kenya’s Parliament, said in an October interview. “Who could ever do business paying the high-interest rates?”

In Kenya and other nations where mobile lending is popular, many users have never borrowed from a bank before and have little experience with financial contracts. Google’s policy was aimed at pushing developers to longer-term loans, which are often easier for borrowers to manage.

“People go for the loans out of desperation for money,” said Gilbert Kiprono, 28, who works for a mobile-phone company in Kitale, in western Kenya, and has borrowed from mobile lenders. “They are easily available but highly exploitative.

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