Making Justice RealThe Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia
Profiting off the Poor
Last week, Legal Aid and the law firm of Tycko & Zavareei, LLP issued a press release announcing that we have filed a class action lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court against the retail chain USA Discounters. The lawsuit alleges that USA Discounters preys on vulnerable consumers, charging high-interest loans on high-cost furniture and electronics that violate usury laws and the laws prohibiting unfair and deceptive sales practices.
USA Discounters made headlines last summer when The Washington Post and ProPublica shed light on the company’s business practices and its use of a legal loophole to file debt collection lawsuits in Virginia state courts against active military personnel regardless of where the service member was actually living. Even though USA Discounters spent the fall rebranding the company, which is now operating as USA Living, it continues to engage in the same practices that had brought it scrutiny. The retail chain continues to sell household and electronic goods at grossly inflated prices; it continues to tack on interest and so called “optional” warranties and programs resulting in transactions apparently designed to disguise interest charges in an effort to evade usury laws limiting excessive interest rates; and it continues to bring lawsuits against customers who are ultimately unable to pay the exorbitant costs of the transactions.
Like countless other USA Discounters’ customers, USA Discounters sued Demera Gaskins – a D.C. resident who had made purchases from USA Discounters on an installment payment plan – when she was no longer able to make her regular payments. Ms. Gaskins retained Legal Aid to assist her with navigating the court system and presenting her legal defenses.
Legal Aid reviewed USA Discounters’ contract and the underlying transaction with Ms. Gaskins and learned that she had been charged grossly inflated prices for the household good she purchased on a retail installment contract. For example, USA Discounters charged Ms. Gaskins $999 for a washing machine that retailed for $550, a mark-up of almost double. Legal Aid also learned that USA Discounters charged Ms. Gaskins an additional $2099.58 for a “debt cancellation” program and an “extend warranty” on products costing $4,653.50. USA Discounters never explained the limited value of these “optional” add-ons, in particular failing to mention that at least one of the items Ms. Gaskins purchased was already covered by a lifetime warranty.
Because USA Discounters appears to have employed these same unfair and deceptive business practices in hundreds, if not thousands, of transactions, Legal Aid partnered with Tycko & Zavareei, a D.C.-based law firm specializing in class action consumer lawsuits. We then filed an answer on Ms. Gaskins behalf in the debt collection case and asserted counterclaims against USA Discounters. We are also actively seeking to represent others who had similar experiences with USA Discounters.