Online lenders turned this fee into a cash cow

5 ways to trade tech
5 ways to trade tech

Fees paid by consumers to obtain loans are proving a lucrative source of revenue for Lending Club and other online lenders.

Lending Club charges up to 6 percent in origination fees based on its "proprietary model ranking," according to the company's website. The most highly rated borrowers in the model ranking pay the lowest fees, and the borrowers with poor ratings pay the most. Lending Club also uses its ranking system to determine the interest rates applicable to loans; the borrowers who have the best rating pay as little as 1 percent, according to its website.

Most of Lending Club's fees skew toward the higher end of the scale, said Bob Ramsey, senior vice president of equity research with FBR Capital. Lending Club charges an average of 4.47 percent per origination, he said.

The fees are "the only way they make money," Ramsey said. "In 2015, it was $373 [million] or 87 percent of its total revenues."

A Lending Club representative declined to comment, citing the company's quiet period in advance of next week's earnings report.

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The origination fees charged by online lenders vary from company to company, and a source said Washington regulators including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau have sought information regarding the charges. The source spoke on condition of anonymity because the CFPB is in the early stages of weighing nonbank regulation.

A CFPB spokeswoman said the bureau regularly meets with a range of industry and advocacy groups. The spokeswoman declined to further comment.

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Online lender Prosper charges 1 percent to 5 percent for loans. But the company charges an average of more than 4 percent in the form of a "closing fee" per transaction, Ramsey said, citing Prosper filings.

Prosper isn't a publicly listed lender but provides reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Similar to Lending Club, the company has a "Prosper ratings" system to determine what to charge borrowers. Prosper declined to comment for this report.

Business lender On Deck Capital's website states it charges a 2.5 percent origination fee and provides consumers a discount if they refinance their loans with the company. The company declined to comment. Lenders SoFi and Avant said they have no origination fee. Avant and SoFi declined to comment.

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Student lender and refinancing company CommonBond charges a 2 percent origination fee for student loans, but nothing for the refinancing products it offers. CommonBond CEO David Klein said that's often less than origination fees students are charged by the government.

"At CommonBond, we always talk in APRs — it's the fairest thing to do, and it's most transparent for the consumer, who is sometimes trying to compare their options," Klein said. "[It's] important for any company to show the fully loaded cost of financing — that is, interest rate plus origination fees. And that's what APR does — it reflects the fully loaded cost of financing."

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In March, the CFPB began seeking consumer input regarding online marketplace lenders. The fintech industry has recently, in part because banking proponents have sought to highlight the disparity in ways big banks are regulated compared with start-ups. Further, advocates of stricter regulation on the financial services industry's disruptors say there is a gap in security requirements placed on start-ups versus what banks and other companies in the space face.

Many U.S. states cap the fees that can be charged to consumers, either by a percentage rate or a dollar amount, according to a 2015 report from the National Consumer Law Center. The report said the fees for installment loans can "dramatically" raise the total annual percentage rate paid by consumers who sometimes may not notice them.

"The most effective approach with respect to loan fees is to prohibit them and require the entire cost of the loan to be included in the interest rate," the report stated.