My working week: 'One woman is forced to pay off debts with sexual favours'


Monday

I work to help people who are in debt and have turned to unregulated money lenders. The Covid-19 pandemic has made everything worse.

A mental health professional calls our 24-hour helpline, reporting a safeguarding concern regarding a client who has had their bank card taken. I’m told the client borrowed £400 from a loan shark six months ago to pay their rent but now owes £3,000. The loan shark is withdrawing all their benefit payments, leaving the victim in severe rent arrears and very little money to live on.

Loan sharks often take benefit or bank cards as security, and resort to bullying and violence to get their money. These criminals are highly manipulative and deceitful, gaining people’s trust and exploiting them for financial gain. We see this a lot with illegal lenders targeting the most vulnerable people in society with mental health problems and learning disabilities.

Tuesday

Liam contacts us via live chat. He doesn’t have enough money to pay a loan shark and is worried about losing his wife and kids if they find out about the debts. He’s feeling suicidal. I reassure Liam that he has done the right thing coming forward. It takes a lot of work to build trust – patience is crucial. Liam finally opens up and gives details about the lender, including a description and location of where the guy is operating.

The past six months have seen an increase in online contact. I feel the current crisis is making it more difficult for victims to seek help, because of self-isolation and staying at home with family. The pandemic has also disrupted access to their usual support networks such as friends, work and community groups.

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We will continue to provide discreet support to Liam while we carry out our investigation.

Wednesday

I spend the day contacting successful applicants who have submitted projects ideas and bids for our Proceeds of Crime Act fund. Our team has powers to confiscate loan sharks’ assets, proving that crime doesn’t pay. We reinvest that money into community initiatives, tackling loan sharks and making society safer.

Thursday

One of my team has a case involving a vulnerable young woman who has been forced to pay off debts with sexual favours. Danielle is terrified of the loan shark who lives on the same estate. He has made threats to her partner and children, which has made her get help. Danielle is also living with crippling anxiety and depression – we make a referral to her GP for counselling and mental health support. We have also referred her to Citizens Advice for debt advice. The loan shark is under investigation.

The way loan sharks operate is to entice people by pretending to be their best friend and doing them a favour – it can be really easy to fall into that trap. These criminals initially offer money to mothers, who in some cases are seeking to feed their children, without fully informing them of the extortionate interest rates and despicable repayment methods. They will use violence, intimidation and even force women into performing sexual services and prostitution to pay off their debts.

It is extremely upsetting to hear stories of women who have experienced unimaginable suffering as a result of borrowing money. The sad reality is that this is not just a shocking one-off story and it is happening more frequently since the pandemic hit.

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Friday

Our 24-hour helpline receives reports of suspected illegal money lending activity in Oldham. An investigation is already underway, and eight loan shark suspects have been arrested in the town. I arrange a call with the north-west team to look at what referrals we can make to positively influence the lives of victims.

My work is hugely rewarding, as our support can make a genuine and positive difference to people’s lives. We help survivors to regain control.

The writer works for for the England illegal money lending team. To report a loan shark call the 24-hour helpline on 0300 555 2222 or make a report online at www.stoploansharks.co.uk.

Names and identifying features have been changed

If you would like to contribute to our My working week series about your job in public services, get in touch by emailing sarah.johnson@theguardian.com



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