Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Support The Troops

Remember 10 years ago, when that slogan was everywhere and if you weren't falling all over yourself honoring the men and women in uniform you were "with the terrorists"? My, how times have changed.

With States' Help, Predatory Lenders Target Military:

Lenders have come under fire in Washington in recent years. Yet one corner of the financial industry — lending to people with poor credit scores — has found sympathetic audiences in many state capitals.

Over the last two years, lawmakers in at least eight states have voted to increase the fees or the interest rates that lenders can charge on certain personal loans used by millions of borrowers with subpar credit.

The overhaul of the state lending laws comes after a lobbying push by the consumer loan industry and a wave of campaign donations to state lawmakers. In North Carolina, for example, lenders and their lobbyists overcame unusually dogged opposition from military commanders, who two years earlier had warned that raising rates on loans could harm their troops.
Because we pay the troops so little for their service (a median annual salary in 2013 of $33,000), they are targets for the bottom-feeding subprime loan industry. And several states are rolling over, making it easier for them to screw the troops in the process.
The lenders argued that interest rate caps had not kept pace with the increased costs of doing business, including running branches and hiring employees. Unless they can make an acceptable profit, the industry says, lenders will not be able to offer loans allowing people with damaged credit to pay for car repairs or medical bills.

But a recent regulatory filing by one of the nation’s largest subprime consumer lenders, Citigroup’s OneMain Financial unit, shows that making personal loans to people on the financial margins can be a highly profitable business — even before state lending laws were changed. Last year, OneMain’s profit increased 31 percent from 2012.

OneMain, which has 1.3 million customer accounts, offers its borrowers unsecured, installment loans with interest rates of up to 36 percent. Borrowers pay both interest and principal in monthly installments until the loan is paid off, usually within a few years. But many of its borrowers refinance their outstanding balance.

About 60 percent of OneMain’s loans are so-called renewals — a trend one analyst called “default masking” because borrowers may be able to refinance before they run into trouble paying back their current balance.

In pushing for the changes, the North Carolina Financial Services Association, which represented OneMain and Springleaf, as well as lobbyists for dozens of smaller, locally based lenders, argued that lending caps had not been updated in years. “Rents are higher, electricity costs more, gasoline costs more,” the group’s lobbyist, Richard H. Carlton, said in an interview. “But the rates hadn’t kept pace.”
LOL. If you can't make a profit off loan sharking at 36% interest (which btw is higher than what a standard Mob-backed "vig" runs), maybe you need to be capped, er, put out of business. Permanently.

But it's bad when you have military brass, not exactly what one would call a "liberal" group, backing more financial regulation to protect their soldiers.
Commanders from Fort Bragg, home of the Army’s Special Operations Forces, and Camp Lejeune, the Marine base, rarely come out so publicly to denounce a bill, some lawmakers said. But they made an exception for installment loans. One commander worried that “out-of-control debt” could jeopardize soldiers’ security clearances.
Not to mention, create an undue hardship on the troops which leads to higher rates of divorce, domestic violence, and so on.

As I mentioned in a post last month, if you think the bottom-feeders on Wall Street (the OneMain lender mentioned above is a subsidiary of CitiGroup), went away after the Great Recession and financial reform that followed, think again. 

The loan sharks are still preying on the poor, single women with children, members of the military, and other down on their luck working class folks, taking the proverbial blood from the poor stone.  Talk about a new form of terrorism.

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Legal Looting

Asset Seizures Fuel Police Spending Bonanza:

Police agencies have used hundreds of millions of dollars taken from Americans under federal civil forfeiture law in recent years to buy guns, armored cars and electronic surveillance gear. They have also spent money on luxury vehicles, travel and a clown named Sparkles.

The details are contained in thousands of annual reports submitted by local and state agencies to the Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program, an initiative that allows local and state police to keep up to 80 percent of the assets they seize. The Washington Post obtained 43,000 of the reports dating from 2008 through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Of the nearly $2.5 billion in spending reported in the forms, 81 percent came from cash and property seizures in which no indictment was filed, according to an analysis by The Post. Owners must prove that their money or property was acquired legally in order to get it back.
Which is a little difficult if they've taken all your assets and you have nothing to hire a lawyer with to start the process. Advantage, law enforcement.

But the amount being seized is staggering. Over $2 billion seized from people who never had a charge brought against them; another $500 million had charges brought, most of which were subsequently dismissed. Basically, this is legal looting.
The police purchases comprise a rich mix of the practical and the high-tech, including an array of gear that has helped some departments militarize their operations: Humvees, automatic weapons, gas grenades, night-vision scopes and sniper gear. Many departments acquired electronic surveillance equipment, including automated license-plate readers and systems that track cellphones.

The spending also included a $5 million helicopter for Los Angeles police; a mobile command bus worth more than $1 million in Prince George’s County; an armored personnel carrier costing $227,000 in Douglasville, Ga., population 32,000; $5,300 worth of “challenge coin” medallions in Brunswick County, N.C.; $4,600 for a Sheriff’s Award Banquet by the Doña Ana County (N.M.) Sheriff’s Department; and a $637 coffee maker for the Randall County Sheriff’s Department in Amarillo, Tex.
That must be one boss coffee maker for $637. But my favorite is Sparkles the Clown.
Sparkles the Clown was hired for $225 by Chief Jeff Buck in Reminderville, Ohio, to improve community relations. But Buck said the seizure money has been crucial to sustaining long-term investigations that have put thousands of drug traffickers in prison.

“The money I spent on Sparkles the Clown is a very, very minute portion of the forfeited money that I spend in fighting the war on drugs,” he told The Post. 
Awesome...it would certainly be a kind of Scared Straight deterrent for me, because I really hate clowns.

And that's not the only stupid being spent by law enforcement agencies with this stolen, er, legally seized money.
One task force used the money for a subscription to High Times, a magazine for marijuana enthusiasts, at $29.99 for a year. 

Several departments bought custom-made trading cards, complete with photos and data about their officers. Some, including police in Chelsea, Mass., share them with children in their communities.

Ten agencies have used the asset forfeiture funds to pay their fees for the Defense Department’s excess property initiative, better known as the 1033 program, which enables local and state police to buy surplus military-grade equipment at cut rates. The equipment includes automatic weapons, night-vision gear and clothing.

Police in Sahuarita, Ariz., paid $4,300 to outfit a Humvee obtained through the 1033 program. The New Bedford, Mass., Police Department in 2012 paid $2,119 for shipping costs for M-16s from the military.
In Brunswick County, N.C., $5,300 from asset forfeiture funds was spent on challenge coin medallions. The coins were to be shared with local residents or other law enforcement. (Brunswick County Sheriff's Office )
Dozens of sheriff and police offices paid a total of more than $100,000 for keepsakes known as “challenge coins” and lapel pins that they could share with one another and with local residents. 

Scores of departments spent money on vehicles. Many of them were typical police cruisers, but dozens were new and used sports and luxury cars, including at least 15 Mercedes, a dozen Mustangs, a handful of BMWs and two Corvettes. 
Because nothing says "Miami Vice" quite like your detectives jumping out of county-issued Corvettes.
“Our financial stewardship of our Seized Account Funds is in compliance with all Federal rules and laws, State rules and laws, County rules and laws, and we undergo audits of these accounts by local and federal agencies,” Col. Edwin C. Roessler Jr., the Fairfax police chief, said in a statement. “Additionally, we are subjected to internal audit processes to review all requests for expenditures to ensure purchases are pre-approved for compliance.”
God how I miss/love police-speak. All of that jargon and gobbledygook is bureaucrat for "ain't nothing wrong with it 'cause we said so."

Actually, to understand the history of asset forfeiture, you have to go back to the mania of the Drug War of the 1980's, specifically the Reagan-era Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 (signed into law 30 years ago today).

This monster of a bill allowed for, among other things, the creation of the Federal Asset Forfeiture Fund and changed the burden of proof in asset forfeiture cases from beyond a reasonable doubt (which we use in criminal court against a defendant) to preponderance of the evidence (which we use in civil court against property).

The distinction is key: we aren't seizing a suspect's property, we're seizing property we think might be involved in the drug trade (suddenly, assets are no longer inanimate objects). Your rights to said property are irrelevant. It also allowed for "administrative seizure" of property/money less than $100,000 in value, so we don't even need a civil court's approval if your assets total less than a hundred g's. And if you don't sue the government within 30 days of your assets seizure to get it back, it's game, set, match the police.

As Christian Parenti noted in "Lockdown America" it allowed for a "drug loot bonanza" of theft by law enforcement, creating an "insidious police dependency on drug money" and a wild west mentality that anything goes in the name of stopping drugs, terrorism or illegal immigration.

Even in places like Braselton, Georgia, whose primary claim to fame prior to this story was the actress Kim Basinger's attempt to buy the city back in the 90's. Braselton has nothing of note in it, with the exception of a few miles of I-85 running through it (and a noted drug corridor).
The local department that makes the most consistent use of Equitable Sharing funds per capita is in Braselton, Ga., a town of about 8,000 people along Interstate 85 northeast of Atlanta. It has reported receiving the equivalent of 20 percent or more of its budget from  the Justice program in five of the past six years, documents show.

In some instances, town police help out on “whisper stops” after receiving informal tips about smugglers from the DEA, he said. Some of the seizures are made by the state patrol on nearby I-85, with help from Braselton officers, he said.

Braselton police also used seizure proceeds to build an enclosed shooting range used by local, state and federal authorities, including the Department of Homeland Security, which also contributed funding, Solis said.

“It’s legit. We’re not buying stuff just to buy stuff,” he said, adding, “We spend the money if we have it. . . . It’s pretty cool. We’re not only able to help us, we’re able to help others.”
Everyone's in bed with everyone, in this story. From the bi-partisan support of the CCA in 1984 to the cross-jurisdictional feeding frenzy of seized assets, asset forfeiture has become normalized in law enforcement today and even more so following the Great Recession and budgetary cut backs.

Local, state and federal government will get their operating budgets out of you, one way or another.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Trial of the Century

Standardized Test Cheating Trial Open in Atlanta:

The criminal trial of a dozen public school educators opened here Monday with prosecutors alleging that the teachers and administrators had engaged in a “widespread, cleverly disguised” conspiracy to cheat on standardized test scores in an effort to protect their jobs and win favor and bonuses from administrators.

It was a near-guarantee that the trial, which is expected to last three months or more, will generate more unpleasantness for these former colleagues at Atlanta public schools. The urban school district has already suffered one of the most devastating standardized-testing scandals of recent years. A state investigation in 2011 found that 178 principals and teachers in the city school district were involved in cheating on standardized tests. Dozens of former employees of the school district have either been fired or have resigned, and 21 educators have pleaded guilty to crimes like obstruction and making false statements.
Remember, this was the "crime of the century" that resulted at one point in more than 25% of the GBI (Georgia Bureau of Investigation) agents in the state working on the case. Apparently, other criminal activity had dried up and vanished that summer of 2011.
In a lengthy opening statement, peppered with both slangy Southernisms and pointed indignation, Fani Willis, an assistant district attorney in Fulton County, argued that the dozen educators in the courtroom, as well as Dr. Hall, had violated Georgia’s RICO statute, by using the “legitimate enterprise” of the school system to carry out the illegitimate act of cheating.

Whistleblowers who raised concerns about cheating were punished within the school system, Ms. Willis said. She also described cheating parties, in which educators erased wrong answers and replaced them with correct ones.

At some of them, she said, educators “ate fish and grits — I can’t make this up.”
That's not a little racist. And yes, you read that right, they used the RICO Act (normally reserved for organized crime, terrorism, drug cartels, and so on) and racketeering statutes to prosecute elementary school teachers for alleged erasure tampering (thugs, all of them).

I also love how Fulton DA Paul Howard is supposedly hanging his "legacy" on the outcome of this crime of the century prosecution.
The outcome of the trial is likely to define the legacy of District Attorney Paul L. Howard, Jr., who has served as Fulton County’s top prosecutor since 1997. The district attorney’s official website describes Mr. Howard as “a visionary and trailblazer whose innovative ideas have left an indelible mark on the local justice system and on the community at large.”
LOL. See also: Ray Lewis, Brian Nichols, Asset Forfeiture Malfeasance, thousands of felony cases never prosecuted, ad nauseum.

What a circus. Make sure you stay tuned for every detail. And if you can't stay home watching it on t.v. all day, check back here and I'll have summaries over the next few months (not).

Sunday, September 28, 2014

They Learn From Us

One of the funnier things I've read about ISIS lately is that they adopted the brutal, graphic, violent methods they did in order to "shock and awe" American society and draw us into a conflict we are too weak to prevail in. Funny because I'm not sure how you can shock American culture through brutality or violence when we remain one of the most violent cultures on the planet. ISIS has a long way to go to catch up to the 16,000 American who are murdered by their fellow Americans annually, or 44 people EACH DAY killed right here in the good ol' U.S. (throw in suicides, and we take out an average of 150 fellow citizens each day via violence).

Further evidence that we are violent and getting more violent is the rise in mass shootings in just the last seven years. According to this new FBI report, the prevalence of spree and mass shooting has jumped from 6 each year to 16 per year, killing on average 50 people or more annually. Since 2000, spree or mass killings have killed or wounded over 1000 people.

A report released by the F.B.I. on Wednesday confirmed what many Americans had feared but law enforcement officials had never documented: Mass shootings have risen drastically in the past half-dozen years.

There were, on average, 16.4 such shootings a year from 2007 to 2013, compared with an average of 6.4 shootings annually from 2000 to 2006. In the past 13 years, 486 people have been killed in such shootings, with 366 of the deaths in the past seven years. In all, the study looked at 160 shootings since 2000. (Shootings tied to domestic violence and gangs were not included.)
And the police are powerless to stop them.
Many of the sprees ended before the police arrived, the report said. In 44 of the 64 cases in which the F.B.I. was able to determine the length of the shooting, the gunfire lasted less than five minutes. Twenty-three shootings ended in less than two minutes. In 64 of the 160 total cases, the gunmen committed suicide.

Just two of the 160 shootings involved more than one gunman, and six of the killers were women. Two of the twelve shootings that occurred at colleges or universities were by women.

Roughly 45 percent of the shootings occurred in offices or stores, and about 25 percent at schools or universities. Other sites included military bases, government offices, homes, places of worship and medical facilities. In 24 of the 160 shootings, the gunmen attacked more than one location. Mass shootings occurred in all but 10 states.
Interesting if you delve into the report, almost all the college, high school and middle school shootings were done by students who attended there; only the elementary schools involved deranged adults intent on wreaking havoc among the most innocent and unable to defend themselves.

Unfortunately the report doesn't have any other demographic information on the shooters themselves, which would help in profiling/prediction/prevention. My guess is that they were overwhelmingly white and working class/lower middle class disaffected individuals. The precise group which bore the brunt of the Great Recession layoffs and who have yet to return to full employment. Just a guess.

Bottom line: we sanitize our own violence and up-sell other cultures in order to assuage our collective guilt in the whole thing. Sure, we don't film and upload to Twitter videos of our crime scenes in the U.S. but can you imagine what that might look like if we did? Day after day, 45-150 times each day, law enforcement uploads still photos and video of every violent homicide/suicide death in the U.S.? The ISIS terrorists in their ninja turtle get ups would run for hills.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Subprime Auto Loans: The Bottom Feeders Are Back

Miss A Payment? Good Luck Moving That Car:

Auto loans to borrowers considered subprime, those with credit scores at or below 640, have spiked in the last five years. The jump has been driven in large part by the demand among investors for securities backed by the loans, which offer high returns at a time of low interest rates. Roughly 25 percent of all new auto loans made last year were subprime, and the volume of subprime auto loans reached more than $145 billion in the first three months of this year.

But before they can drive off the lot, many subprime borrowers must have their car outfitted with a so-called starter interrupt device, which allows lenders to remotely disable the ignition. Using the GPS technology on the devices, the lenders can also track the cars’ location and movements.

The devices, which have been installed in about two million vehicles, are helping feed the subprime boom by enabling more high-risk borrowers to get loans. But there is a big catch. By simply clicking a mouse or tapping a smartphone, lenders retain the ultimate control. Borrowers must stay current with their payments, or lose access to their vehicle.
Awesome...it's like Big Brother meets Repo Man. Check this clown out, who the article calls the "GPS Man", a new kind of virtual repo superhero for the 21st Century:
“I have disabled a car while I was shopping at Walmart,” said Lionel M. Vead Jr., the head of collections at First Castle Federal Credit Union in Covington, La. Roughly 30 percent of customers with an auto loan at the credit union have starter interrupt devices.

From his office outside New Orleans, Mr. Vead can monitor the movements of about 880 subprime borrowers on a computerized map that shows the location of their cars with a red marker. Mr. Vead can spot drivers who have fallen behind on their payments and remotely disable their vehicles on his computer or mobile phone.

The devices are reshaping how people like Mr. Vead collect on debts. He can quickly locate the collateral without relying on a repo man to hunt down delinquent borrowers.

Gone are the days when Mr. Vead, a debt collector for nearly 20 years, had to hire someone to scour neighborhoods for cars belonging to delinquent borrowers. Sometimes locating one could take years. Now, within minutes of a car’s ignition being disabled, Mr. Vead said, the borrower calls him offering to pay.

“It gets their attention,” he said.

Mr. Vead, who has a coffee cup that reads “The GPS Man,” has been encouraging other credit unions to use the technology. And the devices — one version was first used to help pet owners keep track of their animals — are catching on with a range of subprime auto lenders, including companies backed by private equity firms and credit unions.

"GPS Man", don't you love it? "GPS Man...he can disable cars in a single key stroke!" (I feel like I'm reading a really bad Marvel Comic that was pulled from the shelves for lack of sales).

Except it's not a cartoon...it's Wall Street providing the capital for these subprime bottom-feeders who then scam low income individuals into taking out loans (up to 29% interest rates) they can't afford.  Sound familiar?
Without the use of such devices, said John Pena, general manager of C.A.G. Acceptance, “we would be unable to extend loans because of the high-risk nature of the loans.”
If you read the article, this is the same company that turned off a woman's car while she was on the interstate in Las Vegas, forcing her to cross three lanes and almost killing her and untold other drivers on the road that day.
Across the country, state and federal authorities are grappling with how to regulate the new technology.

Consumer lawyers, including dozens whose clients’ cars have been shut down, argue that the devices amount to “electronic repossession” and their use should be governed by state laws, which outline how much time borrowers have before their cars can be seized.

State laws governing repossession typically prevent lenders from seizing cars until the borrowers are in default, which often means that they have not made their payments for at least 30 days.

The devices, lawyers for borrowers argue, violate those laws because they may effectively repossess the car only days after a missed payment. Payment records show that Ms. Bolender, the Las Vegas mother with the sick daughter, was not in default in any of the four instances her ignition was disabled this year.
All of this is troubling on a number of levels. The fact that the gps tracking systems allows "debt collectors" and other unqualified people access to these borrower's every move is borderline stalking. And given that the debt collection industry is rife with criminals, thieves and other malcontents (a "Candy Store for Criminals"), you are basically ensuring this technology will be used in other criminal ways.

But as well all know, Wall Street is rife with criminals, thieves and other malcontents as well, so we shouldn't be surprised that the psychopaths on The Street have figured out a way back into the subprime scams of the 00's.  The regulations have been tightened to prevent similar predatory lending in the housing market, but apparently not when it comes to auto loans. Just another way the poor are scammed, ripped off, surveilled and controlled by the power-elite in society.

I need GPS Man to go kill ISIS terrorists or Russian insurgents. I don't need him hounding single mothers with kids and no money, shutting off their vehicles.

Cross Posted To: The Cranky Sociologists

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Your Militarized Campus

Grenade Launchers, Armored Personnel Carriers, M-16's, All Standard Fare on Campus:

At least 117 colleges have acquired equipment from the department through a federal program, known as the 1033 program, that transfers military surplus to law-enforcement agencies across the country, according to records The Chronicle received after filing Freedom of Information requests with state governments (see table of equipment).

Campus police departments have used the program to obtain military equipment as mundane as men’s trousers (Yale University) and as serious as a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle (Ohio State University). Along with the grenade launcher, Central Florida acquired 23 M-16 assault rifles from the Department of Defense.
Luckily none around these parts, but nice to see Kennesaw University representing in the M-16 assault rifle's category. Go Owls!
Some argue that the procurement of tactical gear doesn’t help with the types of crimes that occur more frequently on college campuses, like alcohol-related incidents.
Are you kidding? Nothing would clear a rowdy, drunken frat party faster than a mine-resistant personnel carrier, grenade launchers and drawn bayonets.

Here's the typical myopic, bureaucratic response, justifying the unjustifiable:
“For me, this is a cost savings for taxpayers,” said Jen Day Shaw, associate vice president and dean of students at the University of Florida and chair of the Campus Safety Knowledge Community, a forum for members of Naspa: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. When police departments “have the ability to get equipment that will help them do their jobs at a greatly reduced price,” Ms. Shaw said, “it is a benefit for the whole campus.”
That's the first time I've ever seen scaring your student body into submission and intimidating student dissent referred to as a "benefit," but uh, go Gators.
“It is a force multiplier for us,” said David Perry, chief of police at Florida State University and president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. “Typically, we are not staffed at optimum levels. We are not given budgets comparable to some large cities and municipalities, so we need to find ways to make it reach.”
Maybe you're not given budgets "comparable to large cities" because, uh, you're not a large city, Chief.
Michael Qualls, an associate professor of criminal justice at Fort Valley State University, in Georgia, agrees. A retired Army officer, Mr. Qualls worked for several campus police departments before he began teaching. “If we continue on with the 1033 program, as those items become obsolete at the military level and if they become available, why not get ’em?” Mr. Qualls said. “It’s better to be prepared than not prepared.”
For what? An invasion of Fort Valley State in south Georgia?

Most of this is driven by the "active-shooter" scenarios, along the lines of Virginia Tech in 2007. And while there is a remote possibility of this occurring on any campus anywhere in the U.S., the chances are infinitesimally slim.
For Mary Anne Franks, an associate professor of law at the University of Miami, the possibility that an extraordinary event could occur doesn’t justify the procurement of assault rifles and armored vehicles. The real danger Ferguson residents faced came not from a terrorist attack, she said, but from police officers armed with this sort of equipment.

“Mostly, I’m wondering why,” she said. “As much as one might wonder about why major cities are getting this type of equipment—which I think we should wonder about and ask questions about—it seems even stranger to talk about it happening in voluntary communities that don’t experience much violent crime.”

Ms. Franks raised another concern: As students become aware of the military gear some police departments possess, she said, that may curtail their willingness to express themselves and protest.
Precisely. Imagine protesting outside the dean's office for lower tuition (or whatever) and suddenly the jack boots and body armor, tanks and grenade launchers show up. "Hey, Hey, tuition's high, I'm going broke, but don't want to die!"

Anyway, it's just another extension of the militarization of policing that's been going on throughout the U.S. the past 40 years or so. At the end of the day, we deploy the same spectacle of brute, state force on college campuses for the same reason we do it in low-income and minority neighborhoods: social control.

Cross posted to: The Cranky Sociologists

Mean Reviews (via Mean Tweets)

I absolutely love this.

The Internet can be a nasty place, as academics know well from Rate My Professors.

It is on that website that faculty members might learn, for example, that their students think they are “useless” or a “general moron,” and say anyone “would enjoy eating the rectum of a brown, exotic Australian toad” more than taking their course.

Yes, those are real reviews.

Many professors assail the website and anything that might give it credence. But at least some faculty members have recently concluded that the best way to challenge the site and its unsubstantiated ratings is to mock it without mercy.

Lehigh University became the latest institution to use the website as fodder for comedy. Taking a cue from a popular late-night comedy trope in which celebrities read cruel tweets about them, Lehigh filmed faculty members reading negative comments about themselves from Rate My Professors, and posted the videos online.
Watch the clips. I'm just re-posting one of them, but they are all hilarious.