Refund checks are going out this week to more than 900 Minnesotans who were allegedly ripped off by an Internet payday lender based in Delaware.

Sure Advance LLC agreed to pay $760,000 to settle the state's claims that the company charged Minnesota residents exorbitant interest rates on short-term loans, some as high as 1,564 percent. The company signed the consent agreement without admitting or denying wrongdoing.

The settlement announced Wednesday is the largest Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson has scored in a crackdown on unlicensed online lenders making loans to Minnesotans. Swanson has sued eight Internet payday companies since 2010 and has reached settlements or default judgments with seven, including Sure Advance. A lawsuit against Integrity Advance LLC is pending.

Online payday lending is estimated to be a $13 billion industry in the United States, as payday lenders shift from bricks-and-mortar storefronts to the Web. Sure Advance made 1,200 short-term loans to Minnesotan residents, Swanson said. Some people had multiple loans.

Besides paying $760,000 into the restitution fund, Sure Advance agreed to stop lending to Minnesotans until it is licensed to comply with state laws.

Yvette Wickner, 48 of Apple Valley, said she found Sure Advance online last year when she was in a financial bind after her son lost his job. Wickner, a call center supervisor, said she took out two short-term $400 loans to pay bills. On one, she paid interest of $440, on the other she paid $836 in interest. What seemed like a short-term solution turned into yet another financial problem that just went on and on, she said.

"You just feel like you really can't get out of it," Wickner said in an interview. "You've dug yourself more in a hole."

Payday loans are very expensive cash advances designed to be repaid in full when the borrower gets the next paycheck. Online lenders typically require customers to give them access to a bank account.

Consumer advocates warn that borrowers can find themselves caught in a vicious borrowing cycle due to exorbitant interest rates and unaffordable repayment terms.

Swanson called the growth in people seeking a financial lifeline on the Internet "really a sign of the times."

"This has been a real problem for consumers here throughout the recession," she said. "You've seen this explosive growth now of Internet lenders."

She warned that some people who have given private information to Internet payday lenders, even without taking out a loan, wind up the target of bogus debt collection calls from international criminal fraud rings.

Online payday lenders make up about 45 percent, by loan volume, of the estimated $34 billion U.S. payday loan industry, according to San Francisco investment bank JMP Securities. It estimates online origination volumes will climb to about $25 billion, or more than 60 percent of the total, by 2016.

Under Minnesota laws, payday lenders must be licensed and cannot charge more than 33 percent annual interest, plus a $25 administrative fee, on loans between $350 and $1,000.

For loans under $350, the rules vary by amount. For instance, on loans between $50 and $100, a lender can only charge up to 10 percent of the loan amount in interest, plus a $5 fee.

Lawyers for Sure Advance, as well as the chief operating officer who signed the consent decree, did not respond to messages left Wednesday. An employee who answered the Sure Advance telephone Wednesday said reporters could only submit questions by letter.

Tom Feltner, director of financial services for the Consumer Federation of America, said it's been an ongoing challenge to apply state consumer credit laws to online payday lenders. The Minnesota settlement "is definitely a step in the right direction," he said.

The industry has come under increased scrutiny, he said, including both online lenders such as Sure Advance that are based in different states than where they are lending, and other lenders that partner with Native American tribes and claim sovereign immunity.

"Both of those models have gotten the attention of consumer advocates, federal regulators and state credit regulators as well," Feltner said. "This is clearly a growing concern."

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683