Top Vermont officials endorse stronger disclosures, financing cap on rent-to-own stores

A Vermont Legal Aid lawyer calls the rent-to-own industry upside-down capitalism: charging the poorest the highest prices.

Christopher Curtis joined Gov. Peter Shumlin, Attorney General William Sorrell and others Thursday to call for legislation tightening regulation of the industry.

Ashlyn Murano, a 20-year-old single mother from Brattleboro, said at the event that a rent-to-own store hit her with a $4,000 bill when a bed she ordered had bed bugs.

"The store wouldn't take it back. They demanded thousands of dollars for it and threatened me with court and I had to pay an exterminator on top of everything else," she said.

Sorrell and Shumlin said rent-to-own customers often end up paying far more for furniture and electronics than they would at retail by the time they make a series of payments.

David Edwards, president of a franchise that owns five Aaron's rent-to-own stores in Vermont, defended the industry in an interview.

He said personnel at his stores clearly explain how transactions work to consumers, and he said they should not be compared with buying an item on credit, because in a rent-to-own deal, consumers can ask to have an item picked up at the store's expense and simply walk away from the deal.

"When you buy a dining room set (with a credit card), that's your dining room set," he said. "If a month later you don't like that dining room set, that's too bad."

At the news conference, Sorrell and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell said rent-to-own stores prey on low-income consumers who want a new television, couch or other similar item but can't afford the up-front cost.

The cost ends up being much higher, they said. They offered an example of a 55-inch Toshiba TV that was selling recently at Sears for $1,259. Rent-A-Center was offering it at $47.99 a week for 91 weeks for the consumer to own it — at a cost of $4,367.09.

Rent-A-Center spokesman Xavier Dominicis also sought to differentiate the transactions offered by that company from cash or credit sales. He argued that the stores provide good consumer value, including free delivery and pickup.