Image: Woman walks into a Rent-a-Center
Tim Boyle  /  Getty Images file
According to the lawsuit filed by the Washington State Attorney General’s office, only 25 percent of Rent-A-Centers customers end up owning the items they are renting.
By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/26/2009 6:28:06 PM ET 2009-08-26T22:28:06

When you run the largest chain of rent-to-own stores in the United States, you can afford to hire former NBA star Magic Johnson to be your trusted spokesman. Maybe you’ve seen the TV commercials.

“Want the good stuff your family deserves?” he asks. “Rent-A-Center puts that goal in easy reach. No credit checks. No credit needed. And no worries because it’s all backed by their 100 percent satisfaction guarantee.” (Fine print: That guarantee must be exercised within the first week of purchase to return the merchandise, have it replaced, or get a refund.)

In the commercials Johnson makes a promise that is mighty appealing to people struggling to make ends meet. Rent-A-Center will give you “the respect you’ve earned.”

Many Rent-A-Center customers complain they are getting anything but respect.

Last month, Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna sued Rent-A-Center. The lawsuit charges the company with “unfair and deceptive business and collection practices.”

McKenna says customers cannot figure out how long it will take them to own an item, because the company “consistently fails to provide the true purchase price for each item that’s being rented. We’ve seen people pay $3,600 for a fridge, $4,000 for a laptop, $6,600 for a used TV set,” he says.

Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director at U.S. PIRG, says it is “unacceptable and disgraceful” that Magic Johnson is associated with Rent-A-Center. I e-mailed Johnson’s management firm to see if he wanted to comment on this. There has been no response.

Charges of ‘abusive’ collection practices
McKenna says Rent-A-Center employees have used “outrageous and unconscionable behavior” in dealing with customers who don’t show up with their payments on time. The customers are normally required to pay at the store each week.

"They've been kicking down doors, shouting profanities, threatening their own customers with arrest, telling the children of these customers that mommy and daddy are going to go to jail,” he tells me.

Rent-A-Center denies all the accusations in Washington lawsuit.

"We're confident that the allegations will prove to be patently false,” says Rent-A-Center Vice President Xavier Dominicis.

He insists employees do not threaten or harass any customers, or do anything else illegal.

"We have a very exacting and a very exhaustive collection policy in place, so there's zero tolerance for any non-compliance,” he says. “We stand by our collections and we stand by our product and we feel like we're making life manageable for everyday Americans."

Unhappy customers file complaints
For years, Karen Lyons of Federal Way, Wash., was a happy Rent-A-Center customer. She went there to get furniture and a big screen TV. She knew she would pay a lot more than the retail price, but she says it was the only way she could afford these things.

One month, Lyons realized she was going to be a day late on her payment. So she made arrangements with the store to pay the next day.

But a Rent-A-Center employee showed up at her door anyway and demanded full payment on the spot or immediate repossession of all the furniture. Lyons says the employee was “rude, disrespectful and threatening.”

The collector told Lyons, in front of her 6-year old grandson, that she would be arrested and little Jermaine would be given to the state.

This is not an isolated incident. Mark Patrick of College Place, Wash., says if he was even a day late with his payment, employees would call and yell at him, using profane and derogatory language.

In a sworn statement to the Attorney General, Patrick says an employee nearly broke down his door when he was away from home. A neighbor saw it happen.

“My door had a big footprint on it and the door frame had a big crack through it,” he says.

The store manager denied an employee did it.

Patrick calls his experience with Rent-A-Center “very unsatisfying” and yet he now rents a washer and dryer from them. Why? He just had a baby and says he can’t afford to buy major appliances right now.

In talking to customers I found this to be very common. They’re treated poorly but feel they have no alternative.

My two cents
I agree with Magic Johnson. Every customer deserves to be treated with respect, regardless of economic status. From the sworn statements in this case, some Rent-A-Center customers clearly feel the company misses that mark.

A judge will decide if the actions alleged in this lawsuit are illegal. If you feel you were harassed or unfairly treated by RAC, file a complaint to your state's Attorney General or Consumer Protection Office, as well as the Federal Trade Commission (http://www.ftc.gov/).

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