Simon Read: Time to get heavy with the heavies

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The Independent Online

We all have an image of a typical loan shark in our minds. He's a big bruiser of a bloke with a smart bit of patter and a seemingly friendly manner. But he can turn nasty over a sixpence – and frequently does.

You definitely don't want to get on the wrong side of him. If he lends you money you better pay it back on time or he might break your leg. He has to. His business is illegal and he has no recourse to law to get you to pay up, so he has to take the law into his own hands. And that's where the violence comes in. He can't chase you through the courts for money owed, so he'll chase you through the streets.

A government taskforce set up just over a year ago is trying to crack down on these rogues. Operation Sharkbait has already prosecuted 60 offenders with a further 90 cases pending. On top of that it has given support to 7,000 victims.

Some people need a lot of support, particularly the victims of former bouncer Paul Nicholson. The 39-year-old was jailed indefinitely in March after being found guilty of raping one debtor and blackmailing 12 others in Runcorn and Widnes. He threatened people with weapons such as a knuckleduster and a baseball bat and told women who owed him money to work as prostitutes or in topless bars to get the cash to pay him back. His charming reign of terror is now thankfully over after Judge Thomas Teague at Warrington Crown Court ruled he was a danger to the public. That's a relief and the taskforce should be applauded for its work which led to Nicholson's jailing.

Operation Sharkbait is an essential bit of law enforcement as more and more people are being forced to turn to backstreet or unlicensed lenders to help them get by in difficult times. But not all loans sharks are as scary as Nicholson. In fact, some are even friends or colleagues, although their rip-off charges are far from friendly.

Typical is 52-year-old garage owner and part-time cabbie Vivian Young of Portsmouth, who has been ordered to pay back £337,935 to his victims. Oddly enough, some of his victims gave character references to the court describing Young as "helpful" and "trustworthy". You see the people he lent money to were all fellow taxi drivers and Young claims he was simply doing them a favour.

Some favour. The APR on the interest he charged in one case worked out at a phenomenal 11,000 per cent, while others were charged between 800 and 5,000 per cent. As Portsmouth City Council's head of trading standards Robert Briggs says: "Illegal money lenders are sometimes perceived as being a community service. But in reality they prey on the most vulnerable."

Now the government – as part of its loan shark crackdown – has set up a hotline for anonymous tip-offs of rogue moneylenders, whether they are of the violent or, indeed, the friendly type. Anyone aware of people operating as an illegal moneylender can call the confidential national hotline on 0300 555 2222 or text "loan shark" and a message to 60003. Investigators won't act without proper evidence, but a quick call could help save further victims of the sharks.

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