"When you see someone professionally coming in here every day, you don't know that people are having these problems," Bender says. "It's just heartbreaking. She came in here telling me that they didn't have hot water."
Bender says she had been a single parent, so she understood the difficulty of making ends meet on one income. At the same time, she says, "We hold [employees] to a higher standard." Bender was firm.
"She gave me the hard truth," Gary says. " `You know what this was about. You put yourself in this situation. ... Whatever we can do as your credit union, we are going to do. But you're going to have to show us that you want to get out of this situation.' "
Gary committed to paying off the $200 payday loan on her own. She took out a $1,700 personal loan from the credit union at a rate of 12.99 percent to pay off the other loans. She expects to pay off the personal loan by year's end.
Gary, now a business development representative for MECU, says she's sharing her story because she wants others to avoid her mistakes and to know the cycle can be broken.
Those having trouble paying bills should tell their mortgage lender, landlord, utility or other creditors, she advises. Creditors will likely work out a repayment plan if customers are honest about their problems.
"The one thing about payday loans is you can't call them and say, `I'm going to be a little short on my paycheck this week,'" she says. "Payday-loan companies want their money, and they are going to get their money" when they have access to your account.
Consumers also can turn to nonprofits, social service agencies and credit unions for help, Gary says. MECU, for instance, offers a free credit repair workshop to the public. Gary will be speaking about payday loans at this month's workshop.
Gary still hears from payday lenders. Recently, one sent her a text message, calling her a "priority platinum" customer and inviting her to take out a loan. Despite what she went through, Gary is sometimes tempted. "It's an addictive thing," like drinking or gambling, she says.
But each time she gets the urge, she puts the amount of the payday loan fee into her bank account instead, slowly building up a cash cushion.
"It was the most terrible thing I could ever have gone through," she says. "I went through it. I came out of it. I'm flying. I'm happy."
To suggest a topic, contact Eileen Ambrose at 410-332-6984 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Digging out from under Internet payday loans
Don't put yourself in a deeper hole by taking out another payday loan to pay on a payday loan taken out earlier.
Low-income Marylanders needing legal help can contact the Legal Aid Bureau's hot line for assistance or a referral at 410-951-7777.
Some lenders are exempt from Maryland law. Still, many Internet payday lenders, no matter where they are based, must follow state law when dealing with Maryland consumers.
If there is a problem, residents should file a written complaint against suspected violators with the Maryland Commissioner of Financial Regulation, 500 N. Calvert St., Suite 402, Baltimore 21202. Violators won't be able to collect fees or the principal on illegal loans, says Joseph E. Rooney, deputy commissioner.
Consumers have the right to stop payday lenders from making electronic withdrawals if the loan has built-in loan renewals. Call your bank, which also might require written confirmation. Write the payday lender that it is no longer authorized to debit your account.
Check other consumer rights at www.paydayloaninfo.org.
[Sources: Consumer Federation of America, Legal Aid Bureau, Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation]