The loan sharks charging 100,000% interest: We join the police as they hunt down violent and illegal lenders exploiting the cost-of-living crisis

Scores of households are turning to cards and loans to cope with soaring billsBut an estimated 1.08 million people are borrowing money from illegal lenders Many are struggling, vulnerable and unable to get a loan or card from a bank Crooks often charge victims extortionate interest rates of more than 100,000%Some criminals threaten physical or even sexual violence if payments are missed

It is just before 7.30am when two police vans and two unmarked vehicles pull up on the corner of a residential street in Lancashire.

Five officers wearing stab-proof vests and carrying batons jump out, creep down a narrow cobbled road and cautiously approach a small terrace house.

One raps on the door, while two stand behind him armed with a battering ram.

7.30am raid: Our reporter Fiona Parker joined members of England’s Illegal Money Lending Team as they raided suspected illegal loan sharks

7.30am raid: Our reporter Fiona Parker joined members of England’s Illegal Money Lending Team as they raided suspected illegal loan sharks

The other two position themselves in the back garden in case their suspect attempts an escape. At first it looks as though someone has blocked the front door.

But the officers are soon inside and emerge just ten minutes later escorting a musclebound, heavily tattooed man in handcuffs.

The man, in his 30s, grimaces as he is walked towards the back of a van and driven away to nearby Colne Police Station.

I’m witnessing one of around 50 raids carried out every year by England’s Illegal Money Lending Team (IMLT), a specialist branch of trading standards tasked with tracking down loan sharks. Wales and Scotland have their own divisions.

And the teams have never been more in demand. As the cost-of-living crisis bites, scores of households are turning to credit cards and loans to cope with soaring bills.

Just last week, Bank of England figures revealed that consumer borrowing has now returned to pre-pandemic levels, with £5.7 billion of debt built up between January and May this year.


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But an estimated 1.08 million people are borrowing from illegal lenders, according to think-tank the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ). Many are struggling to make ends meet, vulnerable and unable to get a loan or credit card from a bank.

CSJ data shows four in five debtors who tried to borrow from a regulated lender before resorting to a loan shark had been rejected by the bank or building society.

But these crooks routinely charge victims extortionate interest rates of as much as 130,000 per cent, according to IMLT.

And the consquences for missing payments can be devastating, with some criminals threatening physical or even sexual violence. As prices continue to spiral, experts fear more households could end up in these crooks’ clutches.

Matthew Greenwood, head of debt at the CSJ, says: ‘Desperate people’s need for cash does not dry up just because they can’t access it.

If someone is unable to access money from a legitimate lender — perhaps because they have a poor credit score or they need the money quickly — they may well turn to a loan shark.’

The raid last Tuesday begins with a two-minute briefing at Colne Police Station at 7.15am.We crowd into a small meeting room where five police officers and four IMLT members gather around a big table.

Tony Quigley, head of the IMLT, explains they have a search warrant for a suspected illegal lender, along with permission to use force to enter his property.

If he is home they intend to arrest him and then take away any potential evidence such as paperwork, computers and mobile phones.

On some raids, dogs trained to sniff out wads of cash are also used, though not today.

Mr Quigley concludes the meeting by saying: ‘What I hope is this morning will go fairly calmly, that the individual will cooperate and we will be able to do our job.’

It’s just a five-minute drive to the suspect’s house. Once arrested, he will end up being questioned for most of the day.

Meanwhile, seven IMLT investigators scour his property for evidence. There is a woman inside staring anxiously out of the window and a dog barks loudly.

Arrested: Officers take away a suspect after the raid at a residential property in Colne, Lancashire

Arrested: Officers take away a suspect after the raid at a residential property in Colne, Lancashire

Across the road a neighbour is filming the scene on a phone.

Officers soon find something of interest in the boot of his Jaguar sports car. And after an hour inside the suspect’s house, they bring out bulging evidence bags.

The IMLT investigators cannot tell me what they have found. But one says they discovered around £20,000 of cash stuffed inside curtain poles on a previous raid. And on another occasion they found £50,000 distributed between two jewellery boxes.

Mr Quigley tells me loan sharks can amass anywhere between a dozen and 1,000 borrowers, raking in millions of pounds a year from inflated interest charges.

They typically lure in victims via word of mouth. Some prey on people living in impoverished areas or work colleagues, who may then recommend the illegal lender to another friend or relative in need of quick cash.

Many crooks also use social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp or Instagram to find potential victims, and may even troll dating apps.

Rovin Mavunga, 24, from Doncaster, was jailed for 16 months last year after using Snapchat to promote his illegal money lending business.

If you take out a loan, you may then be added to an online group chat with other borrowers. Crooks use these to offer people further loans or harass them for repayments.

These days many ask for debts to be repaid via bank transfer, but some still go door to door to demand the money owed. Others will even chase borrowers’ friends for the money.

The CSJ found a ‘small but significant’ minority of loan sharks are violent and some have been convicted of rape, kidnap and serious assault in relation to debts.

Many mentally abuse borrowers, which can be why it takes the average victim more than two years to come forward.

Mr Quigley recalls a case where someone asked a friend to collect her children from school to avoid bumping into a loan shark.

But he intercepted them and ended up walking them home, which terrified her. ‘They tend to find and grab at whatever your Achilles’ heel is,’ he adds.

Michelle*, 29, accepted a £50 loan from another mother in the school playground in 2020 after escaping an abusive relationship. At the time she was struggling to make ends meet after her work hours were cut. Soon, the former charity worker was borrowing more.

Desperate: An estimated 1.08m people are borrowing money from illegal lenders. Many are struggling to make ends meet, vulnerable and unable to get a loan or credit card from a bank

Desperate: An estimated 1.08m people are borrowing money from illegal lenders. Many are struggling to make ends meet, vulnerable and unable to get a loan or credit card from a bank

Her largest illegal loan was £350 — for which she ended up paying back almost £2,500.

But she struggled to pay the interest and was threatened via WhatsApp and had stones thrown at her house. Michelle says: ‘I got to the point of wanting to end everything. I was very suicidal and didn’t know who to go to. ’

Eventually, the spiralling debts caused her to fall behind on her rent and she lost her home just before Christmas in 2020. Michelle finally rang the IMLT’s ‘Stop Loan Sharks’ helpline. The case is ongoing but Michelle says: ‘Life is now completely different. Last year I could actually shop for Christmas.’

Many borrowers may not even realise they have used an illegal lender as crooks can craft paperwork to look authentic.

And there has also been a rise in loan scams, where criminals demand a fee upfront and then never pay the money promised.

The IMLT works closely with debt advisers, charities and housing associations to track down loan sharks. There is also a 24-hour helpline and online chat service where borrowers can report incidents.

Victims may also be added to the Vulnerability Registration Service, so organisations are aware they have been targeted by loan sharks in the past and could be at risk of being approached again.

Helen Lord, the database’s chief executive, says: ‘This kind of vulnerability has fallen outside of credit reporting. It doesn’t get picked up in the usual processes. The fear of a loan shark is far greater than the fear of a court judgment or even a bailiff knocking on the door.’

It can take anywhere from a few weeks to six months for investigators to gather enough intelligence to apply to the courts for a warrant.

Last year, just five loan sharks were convicted. A backlog of cases now means anyone charged today is unlikely to face trial until 2024. Pre-pandemic, around 25 illegal lenders were convicted each year.

Most raids have been in the North West — with a large number carried out in Manchester, Merseyside and, as in this case, in Lancashire.

Experts say clusters often happen like this because they encouraged other victims living nearby to come forward. Those found guilty of illegal lending can be sentenced to up to two years in prison.

Mark*, 41, was offered a £2,000 loan by a colleague at a supermarket where he worked.

The father-of-two agreed to pay 10 per cent a month in interest but fell behind on the payments — and was told he owed £11,000, even though he’d paid back most of the original loan by then.

Mark, who lives in London, says: ‘The loan shark kept turning up at my doorstep and threatening me and my children.’

Mark finally approached Citizens Advice for help in 2018, around a year after he was offered the loan.

The illegal lender — who had about 30 other victims — was convicted and handed an 18-month suspended prison sentence.

The IMLT’s Tony Quigley says freeing victims and whole communities from a loan shark’s hold is always the main motivation behind what he and his team do.

To legally lend money, firms must be regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. If not, the contract cannot be enforced.

Mr Quigley adds: ‘When you tell people the debts were illegal and they don’t have to pay them off, it’s a real weight lifted off their shoulders. You really do feel you’ve given someone their life back.’

*Names have been changed.

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