Payday Loans: Default Fees 'May Be Illegal'
Some payday lenders may be imposing illegally high penalties on borrowers who default on their loans.
That is the conclusion of an investigation by Which? that found fees of up to £30 - a level the consumer group claimed was disproportionately high.
Which? accused lenders of "exploiting" borrowers, saying they risked tipping people into a debt spiral.
The warning was made at a time when consumers are most likely to be facing financial pressure.
Traditionally, January is a tough month, with many struggling to pay for Christmas and deal with a six-week gap between pay days.
Which? looked at the default fees charged by 17 lenders and found that Wonga, one of Britain's most high-profile payday firms, topped the table by charging customers £30.
Ten of the firms had default fees of £20 or more while four charged £25 and above.
In the consumer group's legal opinion, excessive default fees are unlawful under the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999, which state that it is unfair for lenders to charge a disproportionately high fee if borrowers fall behind.
Wonga insisted its one-off £30 fee for late repayments reflected "the additional costs we incur in collecting these loans".
It added that the sum had been independently assessed by a business advisory service.
Its statement said: "As with all our costs, we are completely transparent about our default fee and it's clear to customers when they apply for a loan, and at least three further times before their repayment date.
"On the rare occasions where people can't repay, we always encourage them to get in touch with us so we can do everything we can to agree an affordable repayment plan, including freezing interest and charges."
But Which? claimed payday lenders were using excessive penalty fees to reduce their headline rates and lead customers to underestimate the true cost of a loan.
The Financial Conduct Authority takes over regulation of the payday lending market from April.
It said it was already considering default fees as part of its work on capping the total cost of credit.
The regulator had previously announced plans to crack down on the market and the Competition Commission is due to produce a separate report on the industry later this year.
Russell Hamblin-Boone, chief executive of the Consumer Finance Association, which represents short-term lenders, said its members are committed to helping struggling borrowers rather than immediately imposing default fees.
He said: "Of course, they can only do this when a customer informs them of their inability to pay due to their financial difficulty, so, although it can be hard to talk about it, the best thing customers can do is contact their lender as soon as possible to discuss their situation."
:: Watch Sky News live on television, on Sky channel 501, Virgin Media channel 602, Freeview channel 82 and Freesat channel 202.