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Could missing rental payments lead to criminal charges?

How can a missed rental furniture payment turn into a felony theft charge?

Rent-to-own businesses and "buy here-pay here" companies offer a lifeline to people with poor credit histories who need everything from a new computer to a washing machine but don't have the funds on hand to buy one outright.

However, that lifeline can turn into a rock around your neck if you end up missing payments and don't promptly return the merchandise to the store—a few missed payments can result in a theft by deception charge and even charges of receiving stolen property.

The problem usually comes about because the rental companies make the payments sound very affordable and have very minimal requirements for renters. A lot of customers go in because they desperately need something—like a refrigerator—and they get pulled into taking on more debt than they can actually afford.

A $40 weekly payment (after taxes and insurance) for a fridge may sound do-able, but the total $160 a month might be a struggle for someone of limited financial means and you can get into debt very deeply, very fast.

And the rental companies can be relatively unforgiving. If you miss a payment, you'll face late fees that can make it even harder to catch up on an already strained budget.

Why are missed payments to rent-to-own companies treated differently than a missed credit card payment?

This is the part that trips up many people, because they equate a rent-to-own contract with credit, when it's actually a very different debt.

When you buy something on credit, you take ownership of the item immediately and the credit card company pays the merchant for what you took. The credit card company has taken the risk of extending you credit based on your credit history, so missing a payment may damage your credit but it doesn't change the fact that you now own whatever item you took home.

On the other hand, when you take something home on a rent-to-own contract, the merchant retains ownership of the item until you make the last payment or return the item. If you fail to do either, that's theft. Keeping an item obtained by theft is receiving stolen property.

If you've gotten into a situation like this with a rent-to-own company, don't risk your future by hoping the problem will go away. An attorney can help you understand your legal options as it pertains to your rent-to-own account.

Source: LAWriter Ohio Laws and Rules, "Chapter 2913: Theft and fraud general definitions," accessed Jan. 05, 2017

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