Lowestoft’s loan shark’s criminal sideline netted thousands

A SHOPKEEPER who moonlighted as a loan shark for 11 years, charging excessive rates of interest to borrowers including 'particularly vulnerable adults', has been spared an immediate jail term.

Michael Szpytma, of Elm Tree Road, Lowestoft whose discount DVD and record store doubled as an illegal lending outfit in the town's Station Square, was handed a six month prison sentence, suspended for two years, and ordered to carry out 150 hours of unpaid community work, at Ipswich Crown Court today (Friday).

The 57-year-old's shop was searched last September following an investigation by officers from the England Illegal Money Lending Team, working in partnership with Suffolk Trading Standards, who uncovered an address book and diary containing names and amounts of money, a pension book belonging to someone else, and bags of cash - one holding �8,000.

During the search they seized cash and found documentation revealing loans had been dealt out to around 30 people. Spytzma was arrested and subsequently charged with illegal money lending and proceeds of crime offences.

Targeting those who were unable to access legitimate credit, Szyptma operated without a licence, lending money to people who visited the Sound and Vision DVD and CD shop in Station Square.

He would befriend his victims, before lending them money. He would also sell them DVD's or clothes, or offer to do their shopping for them, charging interest on top.

Szpytma's records were so poorly kept that investigators were unable to tell for sure how much his operation was worth but prosecutor Simon Mortimer told the court his biggest loan was �350 and that he imposed an annual percentage rate of interest estimated in the hundreds of thousands.

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Szpytma told arresting officers he lent only small amounts of money and advised borrowers: 'I'll give you a tenner, you give me back �20.'

He also bought shopping for a man with mental health problems, charging over and above the value of the goods despite being asked not to by social services.

Szpytma, who is married and has a 30-year-old son, was charged under the Consumer Credit Act and admitted lending money without a proper licence on April 28. At an earlier hearing Szyptma admitted running the illegal business from a shop in the centre of Lowestoft, for 11 years.

Katharine Moore, defending, said Szpytma had been otherwise 'out of trouble for very many years' and that he had never threatened his victims with violence. The man with mental health problems, she added 'was unable to distinguish between the truth and lies. According to a care service manager, lying came as second nature to him.'

Szpytma, who had disclaimed his interest in �22,000 seized by police, was also ordered to pay �2,200 in court costs by Judge Martin Binning. He also disclaimed any right to �10,000 cash.

Judge Binning added: 'Operating an unlicensed business is always a serious matter. I accept you offered no threats to those you met but you were certainly charging a high rate of interest.' Judge Binning gave Szpytma credit for his guilty plea and advised him to 'stop lending any money whatsoever.'

Speaking after the case, Tony Quigley, Head of the Illegal Money Lending Team, said: 'Illegal money lending is a crime and will not be tolerated. Loan sharks often prey on vulnerable people, leaving them in misery and fear and with very little to get by on. If anyone is a victim of a loan shark, or knows of someone who is, we would urge you to speak to us in confidence, as we can help.'

After today's hearing Reg Ruffles, Assistant County Trading Standards Officer, added: 'This is a fantastic result for the illegal money-lending team, and demonstrates why partnerships like this are so important to the work of Suffolk Trading Standards. This sentencing will send a stark warning to anyone who is carrying out the same thing that we will find you and we will act fast to protect the vulnerable people you are exploiting.'

• To report a loan shark: Call the 24/7 confidential hotline 0300 555 2222; text 'loan shark + your message' to 60003; e-mail reportaloanshark@stoploansharks.gov.uk or visit www.direct.gov.uk/stoploansharks

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