A single mum has spoken out about her terrifying experience of being trapped by a loan shark, someone she thought was a friend, who drove her to the brink of suicide and made her family homeless at Christmas.
Michelle, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, has bravely shared her story to encourage others to report their experiences and seek support.
Michelle had recently moved to a new area in the North East after escaping an abusive relationship. When her hours were cut at work, money became very tight. Her son's birthday was coming up and she needed emergency cash to see her through the month.
She had become friends with another mum at the school. The woman offered to help Michelle out with a loan, said she knew what it was like to need a few extra quid, and that she could pay her back next month.
Michelle thought her new friend was just helping her out. She didn't realise she was about to fall into a dangerous trap with a ruthless, intimidating lender who would put her family through a horrific ordeal.
It all started with a small loan for £50, but then the loan shark offered to lend Michelle larger sums of money with interest. The most she borrowed at one time was £350, and she repaid nearly £2,500. The debt quickly spiralled out of control with double interest piled on.
The £50 turned into thousands of pounds being paid in cash over several months, with no records kept. The loan shark even knew the date Michelle got paid, so knew when to chase for the money.
In the video released by the England Illegal Money Lending Team (IMLT), Michelle described her experience as ‘soul-destroying' and that she lived in constant fear of what would happen next to her family.
She said: "I was stressed over the repayments. I knew I had to pay her back because I had seen what she had done to other people if they didn't pay back. She made it her business to know exactly what days money went in my bank."
"I got to the point of wanting to end everything. I was very suicidal and didn't know who to go to. There were threats on my life and on my home. I had windows put in and I would get messages off people bullying me because she had sent them to my door, she even used local youths in the area as a campaign of terror."
When Michelle struggled to keep up with the repayments, the loan shark resorted to intimidation and violence, making her life a misery. She was sent threatening messages, people threw things at her house, left unwanted items on her doorstep, and smashed the windows at night.
Michelle was petrified to leave the house in case something bad happened to her family. Her children knew something was going on, but she desperately tried to hide it from them. She was worried about their safety, so made the decision to leave in a hurry. She fled the family home with her three children and left all her possessions behind.
It didn't just end there for Michelle. She continued to receive abuse online and cruel comments were posted on social media by the loan shark and the loan shark's associates. The shaming post went viral and many of her close friends and family also saw it.
Michelle's family became homeless just before Christmas last year. They were given temporary accommodation by the council, but they had nothing. No dining table, no presents, no tree, nothing.
Michelle knew something had to be done and searched google for agencies that could help. That's where she found the helpline number for Stop Loan Sharks and the support changed her life.
She said: "From that first phone call, I suddenly felt like I could breathe for the first time because the person on the phone understood my situation and there was no judgement.
"There's no shame or embarrassment by asking for help, and don't allow someone like that to take advantage of you."
In the video, Cath Williams, LIAISE Manager for the IMLT explains: "People like Michelle often blame themselves, but the truth is the loan sharks are criminals who prey on people when they're at their most vulnerable."
Loan sharks are not always big burly men armed with baseball bats, they can be another mum in the playground, a friend of the family, colleague or even a neighbour.
Thanks to specialist support provided by the IMLT, Michelle's family now have a permanent home in a safe location, and they are finally looking forward to Christmas without the stress and worry of loan sharks.
She said: "That person preyed on me because I was vulnerable. I was a victim. Life is completely different now; I have a wonderful home and a fantastic job. We deserve to have a good Christmas this year and we will."
Families are being warned not to turn to predatory loan sharks charging excessive amounts of interest if they are facing financial hardship over Christmas.
Research from the IMLT shows that Christmas is the second highest reason that people borrow money from loan sharks.
Loan sharks are increasingly using social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, to advertise their illegal loans and target potential victims. People are urged to be wary of people they don't know sending messages through social media accounts.
Watch out for these warning signs when dealing with loan sharks:
- Giving you no paperwork or agreement on a loan
- Refusing to give you information about the loan
- Keeping items until the debt is paid such as your bank card or passport
- Taking things from you if you don't pay on time
- Adding more interest or charges so the debt never goes down
- Using intimidation or violence if you don't pay
Anyone with concerns about illegal money lending can contact the Stop Loan Sharks 24/7 helpline in confidence on 0300 555 2222 or access support online at www.stoploansharks.co.uk Live Chat is available on the website between 9am and 5pm, Monday to Friday.