Up to $600 extra a week in unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 economic meltdown plugged a lot of holes in everyday budgets.
Yet as the extra money is scheduled to phase out by the end of this month, it's likely that more people could struggle making their car payments in the months ahead. Some may even find it more difficult to get extra help than they imagine.
Consumers who face financial hardships during the fight against COVID-19 aren't always happy after trying to get a break on their auto loans, based on skyrocketing complaints to a federal consumer watchdog agency.
Many times, consumers said they were having trouble managing the auto loan or lease during the economic downturn but could not get relief. Increasingly, consumers complained that they were denied requests to lower their payments.
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Americans filed about 2.5 times more complaints about those auto loan issues in March through May than during the same time last year — averaging more than 70 complaints a month, according to an analysis by U.S. PIRG of consumer complaints made to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
"If that $600 in unemployment ends, you're going to have another crush of people with no money," said Ed Mierzwinski. senior director, federal consumer program for the U.S. PIRG Education Fund.
"They're going to fall off another cliff — a no money cliff."
Auto lenders, much like credit card issuers and others, have some leeway to allow borrowers to skip car payments without damaging their credit scores during the coronavirus crisis. But borrowers must contact their lenders, just like they would have to do if seeking a mortgage forbearance, if they want a break.
Already, roughly 7.5% of auto loans saw terms changed in some way to assist troubled borrowers as of June 23, according to data from Equifax. Loan accommodations could include partial payment plans and deals where a borrower might stop making payments for a few months and resume making payments later. Fewer than 1% of car loans had such accommodations early in 2020 before the economic fallout that was triggered by the pandemic.
About 8.7% of mortgages saw some type of accommodations through late June, 6% of home equity loans and 2.7% of credit cards, according to Equifax.
Car payment relief is optional
No one is guaranteeing that you'll get a break on your car payment.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, does not require lenders to give any payment accommodations on an auto loan or some other types of loans, such as credit card debt or private student loans.
"It's completely up to the lender and isn't governed or mandated by the CARES Act," said John Ulzheimer, a credit expert who formerly worked for credit-scoring company FICO and credit bureau Equifax.
"They can defer payments or even reduce payments.
"As long as the borrower complies with the terms of an accommodation, the creditor must report their account as being current to the credit bureaus. And such actions are less likely to damage your credit scores."
Yet all creditors don't have similar policies when it comes to offering borrowers ways to avoid defaulting on their loans. And policies can change over time.
Ally Financial, for example, was ahead of the game in March when it launched a program that allowed auto loan customers the chance to defer their payments for up to 120 days. No late fees would be charged, but interest charges would continue to build.
New auto customers also had the option to defer their first payment for 90 days.
More than 1.1 million Ally auto loan customers took advantage of the auto deferral program by April, according to an earlier disclosure by Ally.
Now, though, the blanket offer for a car payment deferral has ended, as the industry begins to normalize its business process and car dealerships reopen, according to Brenda Rios, director of public relations for Detroit-based Ally.
Even so, she said, Ally still encourages customers who face difficulties to contact the lender to try to work out more flexible payment arrangements.
"We always wants to work with customers to find solutions that help them stay in their cars," she said.
Chase is offering help to customers who request to defer their monthly payment if they’re experiencing financial hardship related to COVID-19.
"During this assistance period, if a payment is deferred, we won’t report it as late to the credit reporting agencies" said Carlene Lule, spokesperson for JPMorgan Chase. 'However, this doesn’t change any previously reported information, including delinquencies."
Where can you complain?
If a lender won't help you or you have a problem, you can file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau at consumerfinance.gov/complaint.
“The CFPB’s public consumer complaint database paints an ugly picture of the challenges faced by Americans trying to keep making car payments when they’re out of work during the pandemic,” Mierzwinski said.
While the number of complaints has been relatively small, he said, there has been a spike in consumers who were "denied request to lower payments" by some auto lenders.
In general, he said, some borrowers may find it somewhat easier now to obtain some relief than they did in March when coronavirus relief programs initially went into place.
Some auto lenders are working with drivers, but consumer watchdogs would like to see tougher consumer protections put into place for borrowers who are facing temporary financial setbacks during the COVID-19 crisis, such as temporarily banning repossessions and cracking down on uncooperative lenders who won't assist borrowers.
"Emergency requirements should be the same for all auto creditors doing business in the state," according to the National Consumer Law Center.
"Creditors should state exactly what relief is offered and the specific eligibility requirements for that relief. This is especially important because discretion leads to discrimination in auto finance. "
Auto finance companies "should not decide on a case-by-case basis what relief to offer consumers," according to the National Consumer Law Center.
Steps to take if you want relief
For the most part, borrowers often treat their car payment seriously, many times preferring to make the car payment ahead of other bills.
"You need a car to get to work or you need a car to look for work," Mierzwinski said.
If you've lost a job or seen your hours cut during the pandemic, he said, it's best to call your lender to request relief. Ask for a deferral with no late fees and, if possible, a temporary reduction in your interest rate.
Key tip: Make certain that any missed car payments as part of an agreement to offer relief ultimately will extend the length of your loan, such as pushing a 60 month car loan into 65 months. You do not want to agree to any deal where you'd owe two or three car payments at once.
"Most people who don't have money today won't have money tomorrow," Mierzwinski said.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Recession drives borrowers to look for relief on car loans