Attention, poor people of New Jersey: You beat the man.

I know, I know: It's hard to believe. Think David. Think Goliath. Then think about how you'll celebrate this victory for the little guy.

How does $109 million sound?

That's what Rent-a-Center would pay about 100,000 customers and their lawyers under the proposed settlement - announced yesterday - of a class-action lawsuit over the chain's outrageous interest rates.

If you shopped at the rental giant's 43 stores in the Garden State between April 23, 1999, and March 16, 2006, you know what I'm talking about.

Encouraged by friendly salesclerks and overwhelmed by confusing price tags, you focused on the smallest numbers, not the biggest. That's how you wound up agreeing to pay 85 to 106 percent interest on high-price, low-quality furniture and appliances - much of it used.

If you're like most Rent-a-Center customers, you paid and paid and rented and rented, never getting to the "own" part. Instead, you got strapped and stopped paying. Then the Rent-a-Center truck hauled your stuff away.

Now it's time to turn the tables on the company that took yours.

For this, you have a stranger named Hilda Perez to thank.

Costly calculations

Perez is a North Camden grandmother with crummy credit but keen instinct. She sued Rent-a-Center after owing $172 of her $300 weekly salary on a computer, washer, dryer, recliner and big-screen TV she never got close to owning. Her lawyers, William Riback and Mark Cuker, argued that Rent-a-Center was making a mockery of the New Jersey law that caps the interest rate on installment sales at 30 percent.

Rent-a-Center, naturally, disagreed.

Last year, the state Supreme Court sided with Perez. Rent-a-Center balked and hired the lawyer who won a little case you might remember called Bush v. Gore - all to take on Perez, a cook at a day-care center with no car and no savings.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case. That left Rent-a-Center with some costly calculations of its own.

Keep fighting, and risk having to pay back all that excess interest plus damages if Perez's lawyers proved the chain violated the state consumer fraud act. Or settle.

"We're hopeful that the court approves the settlement so that we'll be able to focus even more effort on serving our customers," spokesman Gus Whitcomb e-mailed yesterday.

Cuker was slightly more enthused.

"This settlement," he said, "proves that the law can make people equal."

Rejoicing over refunds

Rent-a-Center expects to pay $85.8 million to customers and $23.5 million in legal and administrative costs to right its wrongs in New Jersey.

Shoppers would receive an average of $800. Perez should get about $1,000, not that she has plans for it yet. "Now," Perez told me, "I wait for money to come in before I buy."

Traci Barker will treat her family for a change. Until recently, her 13 Rent-a-Center contracts dictated every cent she spent.

"There were times when we couldn't go out to dinner because we had to pay them," said Barker, a mother of two from Sicklerville.

Barker may do some shopping, but definitely not at Rent-a-Center. "They still send me flyers," she said. "I throw them right in the trash."

Cuker said $2.1 million of the settlement would be set aside to track down customers who hadn't heard they won something.

Renters tend to move around. Perez is about to relocate, and Barker is in her third home since she first walked into a Rent-a-Center in 2002.

I found a settlement candidate on my first try after leaving Riback's office in downtown Camden. "Anyone in here ever shop at Rent-a-Center?" I asked at the Sixth Street Mini-Market.

Willie Davis said yes, eyeing me suspiciously until I shared the good news.

"I had a bunch of their stuff," the Sicklerville resident said, sneering at the memory. "I always had a sense I paid too much."

Monica Yant Kinney |

Those who believe they are entitled to a Rent-a-Center refund may call 1-866-963-9974.

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Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670 or myant@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/yantkinney.