LOAN sharks in Wales are targeting disabled and vulnerable people with “horrific” interest charges and threats of violence.
Illegal money lenders are using violent tactics including assault, blackmail and even kidnapping to pressure victims into repaying loans.
While many loan sharks use traditional community links, like church groups or chatting at the school gate, to snare potential victims, some now openly advertise loans on social media.
With the cost of living expected to increase in April, as national insurance and energy bills are hiked up, the Welsh team fighting loan sharks is expecting their workload to grow.
A loan shark is anyone who lends money without authorisation from the regulator the Financial Conduct Authority. They often tend to initially appear friendly and helpful, but can then turn to violent and aggressive behaviour to force victims to repay the loans with huge interest and default fees.
A small team based in Barry in the Vale of Glamorgan is tasked with investigating and prosecuting loan sharks, and supporting victims with their debts and potentially helping them to relocate if they feel unsafe at home. The Wales Illegal Money Lending Unit (WIMLU), set up in 2008, recently gave an oversight of its work to councillors in the Vale.
Liz Emmons told the homes and safe communities scrutiny committee at Vale of Glamorgan council of the unit’s work, during a meeting on Wednesday, January 12.
She said: “We prosecute for illegal lending, but the additional offences that we prosecute have included assault, criminal damage, kidnap, and blackmail. Those are all means that a loan shark will use to get the repayment that he or she is looking for.
“They will generally target vulnerable individuals, because frankly they see them as easy victims. It’s an extremely cynical offence, it’s not random, a loan shark will know that somebody has financial problems and they will target those individuals.
“In one 12-month period we found 85 per cent of loan shark victims had either a recognised physical or mental disability. That’s the nature of loan sharking: they look for people to exploit.”
Often interest charges will be the same as the initial money borrowed, but can quickly creep up much higher, even reaching as high as 600,000 per cent APR, according to Ms Emmons.
“The interest and default charges are shocking,” she said. “We hear the phrase over and over again ‘he said it was double bubble’. So you borrow £50 and you have to pay back £100; if you can’t pay back the £100 then I’ll have £20 a week until you can give me the lump sum. And on it goes. That means the interest charges rack up horrifically.”
One example of a loan shark prosecuted by WIMLU was a man in Caerphilly who had tens of thousands of pounds cash stuffed into pillow cases, and who took benefit payments off an elderly couple for a decade before being caught. Much of the money he made was then paid back to the victims under the Proceeds of Crime Act.
Often loan sharks are already known to victims, as friends or neighbours, pub bouncers or drug dealers, or even through church groups and at the school gate. However, many are now moving online using social media networks like Facebook or Reddit to advertise loans.
“I’m afraid in Wales we generally find that it’s the old-fashioned connections within our communities,” Ms Emmons said. “When I speak to loan shark victims they’ll say ‘she was a friend of my nephew’ or ‘my ex-husband used to play darts with him’. There’ll be those sorts of community links.
“It may be a friendly female who you know through a church group or even at the school gate who says ‘listen love, I know there’s a problem, I know you’re short of cash, I can help’. The word ‘grooming’ does describe a lot of loan shark activity.”
On one Subreddit, users short of cash can post asking for money, and lenders post saying if borrowers have repaid the loan or not, with unclear threats to “recover the money” if left unpaid. Similar groups also exist on Facebook, with lenders posting their phone numbers and telling borrowers to contact them on WhatsApp if they need a loan.
The pandemic has made the problem worse in Wales, Ms Emmons said, as many people have lost their jobs or struggled with their health. And as the cost of living is expected to increase significantly later this year, her team is bracing for their workload to rise too.
She added: “I was at a cross border meeting recently with my equivalents in Scotland and England, and we’re all feeling slightly like we’re adopting the brace position because in all our nations the Covid impact, the economic consequences of Covid, have just made everything worse.
“Covid has divided the nation into those who are better off and working from home, and those who have lost their jobs, whose health has been affected, and these are all factors. It’s likely there’s going to be an increase in work for all of us. I don’t think we’re going to be short of work.”
WIMLU is currently carrying out four investigations into loan sharks in the Vale of Glamorgan, but this is likely just the “tip of the iceberg” with many more operating undetected, and illegal money lending is thought to be widespread throughout Wales.
“We are an intelligence-led unit and we need information to come into us,” Ms Emmons said. “If you suspect loan shark activity, the best way to make contact is our hotline number.”
Anybody with concerns can report suspected loan sharks to a 24-hour confidential helpline by ringing 0300 123 33 11. WIMLU also offers free training to increase awareness of loan sharks and how to spot the signs of potential victims.