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BofA Initiates New Loan Sharking Program - Excuse Me, Rate Hikes - For Small Business

Remember when we floated banks all that money so they could lend to small businesses, and instead they used it to pay bonuses and shore up their profits? Ah, good times! Now Bank of America has decided to jack up small business owners by boosting

Remember when we floated banks all that money so they could lend to small businesses, and instead they used it to pay bonuses and shore up their profits? Ah, good times! Now Bank of America has decided to jack up small business owners by boosting their interest rates to payday-loan-type levels in order to build their "core" business:

Bank of America Corp., under pressure to raise capital and cut risks, is severing lines of credit to some small-business owners who have used them to stay afloat.

The Charlotte, N.C., bank is demanding that these customers pay off their credit line balances all at once instead of making monthly payments. If they can't pay in full, they are being offered new repayment plans for as long as five years, but with far higher interest rates than their original credit lines had.

Business owners complain that BofA's credit squeeze is abrupt and could strain their small companies and even put them out of business. The credit cutoff is coming at a time when the California economy can't seem to catch a break, and bucks what the financial industry says is a new trend of easing standards on business loans.

One such customer, Babak Zahabizadeh, was told in a letter that the $96,000 debt carried by his Burbank messenger service must be repaid Jan. 25. A loan officer offered multiple alternatives over the phone that Zahabizadeh called unaffordable, including paying off the debt at 12% interest over two years. That's about $4,500 a month, nearly 10 times his current interest-only payment.

Zahabizadeh, known as Bobby Zahabi to his customers, said he has cut the staff of his Messengers & Distribution Inc. to 80 from 200 to nurse his business through tough times.

"I was like, 'Dude, you're calling a guy who's barely surviving!' " he said. "My final word was that I can double my payment — but not triple or quadruple it. I told them if they apply too much pressure they're going to push me into bankruptcy."

The capped credit lines stem from a corporate overhaul launched by Brian Moynihan, who became Bank of America's chief executive in 2010. He promised to address losses caused by loose lending and rapid expansion by reining in risks and shedding investments deemed non-core.

BofA spokesman Jefferson George said a "very small percentage" of small-business customers have been affected by the changes. He would not provide exact numbers except to say it wasn't in the hundreds of thousands. Some of the affected businesses had been customers of other banks that Bank of America acquired, but most were BofA customers from the start, George said.

"These changes were explained in letters to customers, and they were necessary for Bank of America to continue prudent lending to viable businesses across the U.S.," he said.

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