AUGUSTA — The holidays are over, along with the traditional telecasts of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” It is never made clear exactly what Ebenezer Scrooge’s business was. The ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s dead partner, refers to it as a “counting house.” I always assumed they were 19th-century loan sharks.

As the holiday bills come due in the new year, it is timely to take a closer look at an especially avaricious 21st-century version of Scrooge and Marley: “payday lenders.”

Payday lenders are companies that make small, short-term, unsecured loans (sometimes known as cash advances) with repayment at outrageous interest rates (some as high as 400 percent or more) that usually come due within a few weeks after receipt of the loan. While states like Maine have long upheld strong protections, some consumers fall prey to companies that fall outside of state jurisdiction.

This year, the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will propose national rules to rein in dubious lending practices and protect borrowers, especially those who can least afford it, from crippling loan debt.

This is important since unlicensed and unscrupulous lenders still operate in the state. For example, the Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation reports investigating the concerns of consumers who pay as much as $200 in interest over two months on a $100 payday loan, yet still owe the original debt of $100.

What seems to be a short-term fix turns into a long-term debt “trap” for those least able to secure the financial resources to escape. One-fourth of consumers seeking help with payday loans owe money to more than one lender; some are in debt to five or more separate lenders totaling into the thousands.

Maine law applies rigorous oversight and regulation of consumer lenders, including payday lenders. All payday lenders – including those from out of state – doing business with Maine residents must be licensed. State law also caps interest rates for small loans at 30 percent and loans for over $4,000 at 18 percent.

Over the years, Mainers have worked hard to prevent out-of-state lenders from loosening these laws, which have saved borrowers in the state $25 million every year in fees that would otherwise go to out-of-state companies that operate payday loan stores. That’s good for borrowers and for Maine.

Still, unlicensed lenders continue to operate in the state. While Maine law prohibits unlicensed lenders from collecting any more from the consumer than the amount of the original loan principal, forgiving of all interest, too many consumers are unaware of these protections and succumb to debt collectors’ harassment and scare tactics.

While Maine has remained steadfast in sensible protections against high-cost lending practices, Congress has failed to enact strong, enforceable laws and sufficiently empower and support federal regulators. This would help curtail some of the abuses of lenders that currently skirt state regulations.

The Maine Center for Economic Policy asks consumers to contact our members of Congress and appeal to them to support the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s proposed rules. It is critically important that any such federal rules not only affirm our state laws, but also work to protect borrowers no matter where they live.

The federal watchdog agency should require that payday lenders check a borrower’s ability to repay a loan before making it, and ban payday lenders from direct access to a borrower’s bank accounts, so they can’t take their fees before consumers can pay for the rent, utilities and other basic necessities.

The agency needs help demonstrating to the media, policymakers and other consumers how unregulated, ruthless payday lenders prey on people trying to make ends meet, often with devastating impacts upon their victims and their families. If you have your own experience with a payday lender, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau would like you to hear from you. You can share your story on their website here.

Our greatest protection from devious payday lenders lies in strong regulatory reform. Congress must not allow payday loan debt to become a nightmare more frightening than Scrooge’s and leave borrowers with a chain of debt as long and as heavy as that Jacob Marley drags through eternity.

We urge the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to adopt strict federal regulations and apply robust enforcement against unscrupulous lenders and ask our elected leaders in Congress to support them.