The Federal Trade Commission filed suit against an online operation that asked consumers seeking a payday loan to complete an application form, the bottom of which included unrelated programs for discounts on travel and merchandise or long distance calling, the FTC alleged.

Consumers who chose to submit their applications were often unwittingly enrolled in the various programs, costing them up to $59.90 each month, and some consumers were charged even when they specifically declined the offer to enroll. “Defendants’ websites are not online applications for payday loans, but instead are vehicles to collect financial information from consumers. With this information, defendants enroll consumers into their programs for which they charge membership fees,” according to the complaint.

The defendants shared consumer bank account information with payment processors to debit the accounts, the FTC said, and consumers typically discovered the debit only when it appeared on their statement or their account was overdrawn. In addition, the FTC said the defendants gave consumers who sought a refund a “run-around.”

The agency filed suit in Florida federal court, alleging that the defendants – Direct Benefits LLC, Voice Net Global, and various company officers – violated the FTC Act by obtaining consumer account information and debiting the accounts without consent, and by failing to make adequate disclosures about what information would be used for purposes other than to process payday loan applications.

A U.S. District Court Judge halted the defendants’ operation and froze its assets.

To read the complaint in FTC v. Direct Benefits Group, click here.

Why it matters: The suit – part of its “continuing efforts to protect financially strapped consumers during the economic downturn,” the agency said – is yet another recent action by the FTC against payday lenders. The FTC previously took action against an online payday lender site and its directors for using Web advertising to trick loan applicants into purchasing prepaid debit cards, and a U.S. District Court judge ordered the defendants to pay the agency $4.8 million. In a press release, the FTC said it is “closely monitoring payday lending and other financial services to protect financially distressed consumers.”