Protecting vulnerable people from those who aim to exploit them is one of the key duties of police officers and police and crime commissioners.
By creating a bridge between local police forces, national police units, the criminal justice system and partners from the public and charitable sectors – PCCs are in a unique position to ensure resources are targeted to prevent exploitation and bring perpetrators to justice.
So what is vulnerability?
I think everybody would be aware of and recognise the work being carried out to protect those at risk of exploitation because of disability, their faith, their race or nationality, when they have been trafficked.
But what about someone who has fallen on hard times financially, someone who has lost their job, their marriage has broken down, there has been a bereavement in the family or they have lost their house – how many of us would say someone suffering like that is vulnerable?
But these are exactly the type of people targeted by illegal money lenders.
Loan sharks often operate by targeting people who are struggling financially.
These criminals appear friendly at first but create a tidal wave of misery and trap victims in a spiral of debt.
That’s why I welcomed the recent court result for a Newton Abbot loan shark couple who preyed on vulnerable people – the husband even managing to maintain his empire of pain from inside a prison cell.
Paul Stretch, 59, was jailed for 27 months at Exeter Crown Court on August 18, 2017, after a judge described his interest rates as ‘swingeing’.
Mr Stretch had run an unlicensed money lending business for almost a decade and carried on lending money and collecting payments while he was being investigated by the England Illegal Money Lending Team (IMLT).
He previously lent money to around 100 customers in Newton Abbot and Torbay and charged 50 per cent interest rates on loans.
His wife, Mandy Stretch, 48, took over the illicit business ‘without missing a heartbeat’ and collected £9,000 from vulnerable clients while her husband was in prison.
The couple, of Twickenham Road, Newton Abbot, admitted illegal money lending and two counts of money laundering.
He was sent back to prison for an additional two years and three months and she was jailed for nine months, suspended for two years at Exeter Crown Court last month.
It was a good result and just one example of where the IMLT have been working closely with Devon and Cornwall Police to disrupt illegal money lending activity in Brixham.
Seven people have been arrested in the fishing town as part of a multi-agency crackdown on unscrupulous loan sharks with the resultant court cases due later this year.
The IMLT is a national team that investigate and prosecute loan sharks. Since 2004, the team have supported over 29,500 victims and written off in excess of £74.9 million worth of illegal debt.
They have also secured more than 390 prosecutions for illegal money lending and related activity – resulting in over 470 years’ worth of custodial sentences for loan sharks.
In the majority of cases, victims are introduced to the lender either through a friend, family member or because they are known in the community. Victims believe the loan shark is offering them a service but their behaviour can quickly change if repayments are not met.
Loan sharks are highly manipulative and deceitful as they gain people’s trust when they are at their most vulnerable and exploit them for financial gain.
Anyone lending money must have authorisation from the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) to carry out regulated financial service activities. Licensed lenders have to comply with legal obligations in dealing with customers, including the use of proper paperwork and fair collection methods.
Some of the tell-tale signs of loan shark activity include cash loans without paperwork, use of benefit or bank cards as security, and threatening behaviour or violence to get money.
If you are having a tough time financially it might be worth considering getting in touch with a credit union. These are not-for-profit organisations whose members can borrow from pooled deposits at low interest rates. A quick internet search will return details of a number of these working in the South West. They also present an ethical way to save as you know your money will go towards helping others out.
If you’ve already found yourself dealing with a loan shark, you’re not alone and there is help available.
To report a loan shark call the 24/7 confidential hotline 0300 555 2222, text a report to 078600 22116, email firstname.lastname@example.org or complete a secure form online stoploansharks.co.uk.