The state Commerce Department is cracking down on unlicensed payday lenders it says are taking advantage of Minnesotans over the Internet in a tough economy.

The state has filed administrative actions that accuse four out-of-state payday lending companies of making loans in Minnesota over the Internet and charging exorbitant fees for the fast cash, including one that charged a Mora woman $120 for a $400 loan.

Unlicensed click-for-cash operators are a growing problem in the state's booming payday lending industry, where the average interest rate runs more than 200 percent, the Commerce Department said.

"Minnesota's payday lending laws are specifically designed to protect Minnesotans from unreasonable, expensive fees," Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman said in a statement Thursday. "But unlicensed online lenders often try to fly under the radar, brazenly ignoring state rules -- and their customers end up paying the price."

Payday loans are small, short-term consumer loans, sometimes taken as a cash advance on a paycheck. Minnesota, where the maximum loan amount is $350, has long required payday lenders to be licensed by the state, but online vendors were not subject to the state law until two years ago.

The four companies the state targeted are: Pack Management Group Inc. of Carson City, Nev.; Sanguine Inc. of Wilmington, Del.; Omega Investments Ltd. of Salt Lake City, and AmeriLoan, operating out of Miami, Okla. All are scheduled for administrative hearings in St. Paul on Jan. 12.

None of the Minnesota borrowers who filed complaints against the companies wanted to speak publicly, a Commerce spokesman said.

According to Commerce, the number of payday loans in Minnesota has nearly quadrupled since 2008 as the Great Recession left many families struggling to make ends meet. The average size of the loans continues to increase, it said.

In 2010 alone, the 25 companies that are licensed in Minnesota made more than 135,600 such loans totaling nearly $42 million, according to Commerce figures. The average annual percentage rate for the short-term loans was 237 percent, and nearly half of the 17,357 people who borrowed last year took out five or more loans.

Officials say they have no idea how many more loans were made by unlicensed companies.

AmeriLoan, which made the loan to the Mora woman, is the operating name of Tribal Financial Services, a lender owned by the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma. The Miami Nation did not return phone messages Thursday. None of the other three companies could immediately be reached.

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683