US consumer protection agency investigates ‘buy now, pay later’ plans

The US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced Thursday it has opened an investigation into the risks and benefits of “buy now, pay later” payment options, which have become particularly popular during the pandemic.

The agency said it is “concerned” about the potential accumulation of debt, compliance with consumer protection laws and the use of data collected by companies offering such payment schemes. The CFPB has requested more information from five such companies: Affirm, Afterpay, Klarna, PayPal and Zip.

The companies typically let customers pay for a purchase in four installments with no fees or interest and no paperwork.

While it has long been possible in the United States to pay for a product in installments, the new payment schemes add “modern, faster twists,” said agency director Rohit Chopra in a statement.

For proponents of “buy now, pay later,” the new form of financing provides a less risky alternative to credit cards, which charge interest that is often complicated to understand and can add up quickly.

The payment options can also provide valuable assistance to consumers who do not have access to traditional credit.

The use of “buy now, pay later” exploded during the pandemic, and partnerships with stores have multiplied, with the latter willing to pay a percentage of the transaction for purchases that customers would not necessarily have been able to pay for in one go.

But, the CFPB said, “because of the ease of getting these loans, consumers can end up spending more than anticipated.”

Some of the companies offering the payment scheme “may not be adequately evaluating what consumer protection laws apply to their products,” such as on late penalties or dispute resolution, the agency said.

The CFPB would also like to “better understand” how the payment companies use and market data collected from their customers.

The US agency said that it is working on the issue in conjunction with the Australian, Swedish, German and British authorities. — Agence France-Presse