Gail Storer will never forget the physical pain and anxiety she felt every time the phone rang or she heard a car pull up outside her home.
"To hear the phone just constantly ringing -- your heart stops beating for a second," she said.
A double mastectomy and chemotherapy had drained her of energy and money. Donald's, her husband, heart disease put him in the same boat. They couldn't pay off their payday loans anymore.
By law, the lenders couldn't take away their Social Security checks, the only income they had left. But a lender would call at least twice a day, threatening them with prosecution, even though Donald had told them in writing twice that the debt couldn't be paid.
Now the Isle of Wight County couple are suing Columbus, Ohio-based Checksmart for $750,000, accusing it of breaking state law. Virginia legislators allow payday lenders to charge annual interest rates of almost 400 percent, but they can't threaten criminal prosecution.
This isn't the first time Virginia payday lenders have been accused of making criminal threats. Another lawsuit involves an employee of Allied Cash Advance pretending to be a sheriff's office employee.
The vast majority of the 278 complaints to Virginia regulators about the lenders since their industry was legalized in 2002 in Virginia revolve around how they handle collections. The state can impose fines or yank licenses for violations, but it's levied only one small fine in five years.
Many complaints to the state involve a common gripe that state law doesn't address: Payday lenders are allowed to constantly call debtors at work and home. The lenders, who now make $1.3 billion in annual Virginia loans, have been caught making threats many times before.
West Virginia's attorney general recently settled with Advance America, the nation's largest payday lender, even though the business is illegal in that state. Some employees from the culprit stores aggressively collecting over the state line were coming from Virginia.
BAD TIMES GET WORSE
Gail Storer survived her fight with breast cancer.
After the surgery, she had to get chemotherapy and radiation treatment that created a nerve disorder and the need for costly medications -- with no insurance coverage.
Donald lost his job when his employer went bankrupt. While he was on unemployment, his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease led to having two stents put in arteries on his heart in 2004. He drained his retirement savings over the next two years.
Gail opened an account at a Checksmart in Smithfield in January 2006 to pay for medication. Either Gail or Donald would get another loan every month that year at several payday stores, taking out 12 total to pay the other loans off.
"Everything just snowballed that year," Gail said.
By the end of the year, Gail was stressed out and crying a lot. "I was very depressed and disappointed. "We didn't have any money for Christmas."
Their only income left was Social Security, and payday companies aren't allowed to garnish that money. Donald told three lenders that he and his wife couldn't pay back their last loans.
"It really was a hard thing to do, but it came down to them or us," Gail said.
Every lender forgave the debt except Checksmart.