Ian Howarth, director of the Cult Information Centre in London, said that up to half a million people in Britain are, or have been, involved with a cult, yet it was still perceived as an American phenomenon.
A British tragedy similar to Waco in Texas was not so far- fetched, he said. A year ago today, more than 80 followers of David Koresh, a self-styled messiah, died - including 24 Britons - when their compound was stormed by government agents and caught fire.
'There is a great danger that many people in the UK associate cult violence with American culture and liberal gun laws. People do so at their own peril,' Mr Howarth said.
Speaking at the first conference on Cults and Counselling, at Hull University, Mr Howarth said that on a per capita basis, the growth and influence of destructive cults here is as serious as that in America, where there are 2,500 cults and between 3 and 10 million people involved. He defined a cult as a group or organisation which used any form of psychological coersion to recruit and indoctrinate people so that all previous incidences - spiritual, social, intellectual, financial - are replaced with a new set of values and explanations so that their 'reality' is changed. 'I have never met anyone who joined in a cult. They are recruited,' he said.
Mr Howarth, who is an ex- cult member, said people from every age group and background were vulnerable to cult recruitment methods. There were two main categories: cults masquerading as religious orders which tended to attract people in their early twenties; and those which offered some sort of therapeutic help for physical or mental problems and which were more popular with people in their mid-thirties or older. There was also a rising number of cults presenting themselves as management or assertive assertiveness training groups.
However, mind control techniques were remarkably similar. They include meditation, 'love bombing' - in which recruits were hugged, kissed and shown lots of affection by members - chanting and singing, sleep and food deprivation, and fatigue.
Mr Howarth, who receives up to 80 calls a week from cult members or their families seeking help, wants greater awareness of cults and mind control and better training for mental health workers to counsel former members.
Kevin McNamara, Labour's Northern Ireland spokesman, who chaired the conference attended by psychiatrists, psychologists, ex-cult members and their families, said he did not believe that Mr Howarth was exaggerating the problem. 'You only have to look at how many Britons were in Waco. Cults have slipped out of the headlines but they are still getting hold of vulnerable people when they are their lowest emotional ebb,' he said.