We must not let paramilitary gangs use illegal money lending to target the most vulnerable members of our communities in this challenging environment, Justice Minister Naomi Long has said.
She was speaking as The Northern Ireland Executive Programme to Tackle Paramilitary Activity, Criminality and Organised Crime launched new adverts for its current 'Ending the Harm' public awareness campaign which focuses on how paramilitary gangs use illegal money lending as a means to control and exploit vulnerable people.
The two adverts tell the story of how a small loan from a paramilitary lender can quickly escalate out of control. One advert focuses on the victim and her experience of the loan, and the second highlights the paramilitary lender and her actions.
The Justice Minister said: "We know from research and evidence that paramilitary gangs and those linked to them use illegal money lending to try to coerce and control people and communities for their own gain.
"When this campaign launched in June I said that illegal money lending is an under-reported crime that targets vulnerable people when they are at their most desperate.
"In the current climate, people are experiencing real financial challenges. With the ongoing pandemic, increasing energy and fuel costs and Christmas just round the corner, many people are vulnerable and really worried about how to make ends meet.
"We know that it is common for victims of crime like this to feel that they have no-one to turn to. But support and help is available. I would encourage all victims of criminal behaviour like this to contact the police. Advice NI also runs a free and confidential debt service, offering practical advice and support to people dealing with debt of any description.
"The cross-Executive programme to address paramilitarism, criminality and organised crime is working to build safer communities, resilient to paramilitarism, criminality, and coercive control. This is important work to end the harm caused to our society by paramilitary gangs."
Advice NI are an independent charity which offers confidential debt advice to anyone who finds themselves in this situation. Bob Strong, Advice NI Chief Executive, said:
"People are turning to our Advisors in increasing numbers, indeed over the last quarter we have seen a spike in the number of people contacting Advice Centres and our regional helplines. Debt Advisors are also dealing with more people experiencing financial difficulties some of whom are turning to illegal and high cost money lenders to make ends meet.
"Our Debt Advisors are trained experts who can provide help and support to those in any type of debt and we would encourage people to call our confidential advice helpline on 0800 915 4604."
The National Crime Agency (NCA) work with the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Revenue and Customs (HMRC) as part of the Paramilitary Crime Task Force. NCA Regional Head of Investigations for Scotland & Northern Ireland Gerry McLean said:
"Illegal money lending is another way that paramilitary crime groups attempt to exert control over communities. This is organised crime, pure and simple.
"The same criminal groups that are involved in illegal money lending are also involved in crimes such as drugs and firearms supply and distribution. Indeed, some of the profits they make from money lending will be directly funnelled into drugs and guns.
"All these forms of criminality cause huge damage to our communities, not just here in Northern Ireland, but across the UK and the island of Ireland and we are determined we can do all we can to stop it."
PSNI Assistant Chief Constable (ACC), Mark McEwan said: "With Christmas just around the corner, individuals can use this time of year to exploit some of most vulnerable members of our community. They offer unregulated loans which on first sight, seem attractive as there are no forms to be completed or credit checks carried out.
"These criminals set unreasonable interest rates and expensive penalties which borrowers cannot afford. When people fall behind with their payments, they use the threat of exposure, embarrassment and violence. They make borrowers believe there is no way out of the situation.
"I would encourage anyone who feels they have been caught in such a situation, to report it to Police on the non-emergency number 101, or submit a report online using our non-emergency reporting form via http://www.psni.police.uk/makeareport/. You can also contact Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111 or online at http://crimestoppers-uk.org/. Crimestoppers is a totally independent charity, if you contact them your details will never be passed to police."
The campaign's two new TV ads will go live after 9pm tonight, posters will run across a selection of outdoor advertising sites, social media and web adverts will feature on a range of platforms and a radio advert will go live from today.
The call to action will continue to ask people to visit the campaign website, www.endingtheharm.com, to get the full story.The website has a number of sections including information on where people can go for help and support as well as some further real-life stories (that have been anonymised) and some rationale behind this campaign.
The campaign was originally launched in June this year by telling the story of how a young mother's situation is exploited by illegal money lenders.