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Because the words consumer protection are virtually unknown in South Florida, Undercurrents finds it necessary to call attention to a particularly heinous example of legal usury. In this month of taxing bill problems, it becomes imperative.

Because we get turned away from car dealerships that advertise "bad credit OK," our first refuge when caught in a money crunch is one of the title loan companies that litter the poorer neighborhoods in Broward.

The one we walked into last week in northwest Fort Lauderdale had a picture of a fancy red Lamborghini on the wall but very drab office furniture out front, and behind the Formica counter was a burly and gold-bedecked man.

These operations target people in financial crises and push them over the edge with annual interest rates of 275 percent. The FBI arrests Mob guys who charge 100 percent, but of course title loans are legal in Florida because of a law written by a lobbyist and contributions from title loan interests at election time. A company keeps the title on a $4000 car as collateral on a $400 loan, and late payments lead to a quick visit from the repo man.

We asked for written information about the loans, repayment schedules, and interest rates. The man with the necklace frowned and dispensed with the niceties, "There is nothing in writing." Well, then is it true you repossess cars if payments are late? "That's extreme, and we aren't in the used-car business." That's right sir, you are a loan shark.

The attitude at the pawn shop across the street was much more accommodating. Pawning a watch brings cash and free beer to soften the blow.

Man your battle station, er, TV station with pilots and suck some ratings during this mini war with the Serbs!

That appears to be the marketing strategy behind the shameful promotion by NBC6 (WTVJ-TV) of former pilot turned Miami-based war correspondent Willard Shepard. It is disgraceful, even by South Florida standards.

Promoted continuously as a Gulf War veteran and called "an attack pilot" in the introduction to his pieces, Captain Shepard seems to have walked off the flight line and zoomed into your home. He accidentally on purpose drops a few "I flew"s and "we went"s into pieces reported here to add authenticity to his descriptions of a war going on thousands of miles away in Yugoslavia.

What's worse is the file footage of him in combat gear, inspecting some jet, shot who knows where (our guess is Homestead), that is added to pieces about pilots flying over the Adriatic Sea. He obviously knows less about what is actually happening over there than reporters in Washington or those with the troops, but damn, Top Gun sounds like he just got back from a dogfight with a MIG. The station's Website even lists the medals he won and that he flew the unglamorous A-10 Warthog, which doesn't sound like something a handsome attack pilot would fly.

We also wonder what kind of objectivity he brings to his reporting about the military when he's still in the military as an Air Force reservist.

Tip to station's marketing director: Get a retired cop in the police reserves to report at the crime scene of each murder. Show file footage of the former detective walking past crime scene tape and wearing a badge. Yeah, then place him live! at the scene of a murder wearing a fedora and...

-- as told to Tom Walsh

Got a tip? Call 954-233-1581, fax 954-233-1571, or e-mail [email protected].

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Tom Walsh
Contact: Tom Walsh