East Anglia loan shark crackdown

Ruthless loan sharks who bring misery to vulnerable people, particularly around Christmas, will be hunted down in East Anglia's biggest crackdown on the illegal trade.

Ruthless loan sharks who bring misery to vulnerable people, particularly around Christmas, will be hunted down in East Anglia's biggest crackdown on the illegal trade.

Tomorrow's launch of the purge comes with the festive season in full swing and thousands of people feeling pressure to spend beyond their means - and amid a global credit crisis which means many are turned down by high street borrowers.

A Birmingham-based illegal money lending team has extended its reach to the region and will work with trading standards officers for three years to track down and punish the disreputable lenders.

The crackdown, which will focus on illegal money-lending hotspots including Yarmouth and Lowestoft, is launched as growing numbers of people are weighed down by the burden of debt - with more than 1,500 families affected across the region every year.

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Among the sharks caught already across England, one was charging an annual interest rate of 117,000pc. Others used violence, threats and intimidation to extract cash.

Last night, the unscrupulous operators were warned: “We can - and will - stop you.”

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Richard Rockcliffe, Norfolk County Council's cabinet member for fire and community protection, said: “With the help of the Birmingham team, our aim is to protect the people and communities whose lives are turned upside down by these criminals.

“Loan sharks target the most vulnerable people in society and we can - and will - stop them.”

David Collinson, head of Norfolk trading standards, said: “The extra pressure on families and individuals to take out loans around Christmas is a big factor in the increasing level of debt and the issue of repayment of loans.

“We are looking forward to working to bring a halt to the activities of loan sharks, who are criminals and who have intimidated and controlled their local communities, profiting at the expense of others and causing misery to so many.”

Mr Collinson said the sharks targeted areas where there was a “high concentration of deprivation” and large numbers of people who had been rejected by legal lenders as bad credit risks.

He said: “They often find they have no alternative but to go to illegal money lenders.”

Mr Collinson said it was a “hidden crime”, and added that the illegal lenders were extremely difficult to track down. He said they targeted their victims through careful networking and word of mouth, did not leave contact details or addresses and collected money door-to-door.

Trading standards officers urged loan shark victims to contact them with information about the practice and the people.

They also said they would give advice about how to access reputable money lenders who offer reasonable repayment rates, including credit unions.

The crackdown coincides with the announcement of a conference about the issue of growing consumer debt in Norfolk. Hosted by Norwich and District Citizens Advice Bureau, it will offer advice to organisations on how to help low-income groups to avoid crippling debt.

It is being held at Abbey Conference Centre at Colman's of Norwich, off King Street, Norwich.

Funded by the Department for Business and Enterprise and the Treasury, the loan shark crackdown is the latest in a series of nationwide projects co-ordinated by the Birmingham team. Other areas set to benefit include Merseyside, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Portsmouth, Southampton and Hastings.

The minister for consumer affairs Gareth Thomas, who will be at the Yarmouth launch tomorrow, said: “This team will protect the local community from loan sharks. Illegal lenders are criminals who target vulnerable people and the government is determined to get them off our streets.

“Anyone who is being preyed upon by a loan shark should turn to our team for help. Give them the evidence and they can put a stop to this illegal behaviour.”

t If you are a victim of a loan shark, contact Norfolk trading standards on 01603 461122, text “loan shark + your message” to 60003 or email stoploansharks@norfolk.gov.uk.

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