A scheme being piloted in Birmingham to tackle loan sharks is proving so successful that it could soon be rolled out across the UK, according to Consumer Minister Gerry Sutcliffe.
The two-year project, which is costing the Government £2 million, is the first of its kind in Britain and is aimed at clamping down on criminal gangs which illegally issue cash loans with high levels of interest.
A team of experts, including police, trading standards and solicitors, was set up in September to trace and prosecute loan sharks while offering support and financial help to victims forced to pay back loans through violence and intimidation.
Visiting the team yesterday, Mr Sutcliffe said: "The Birmingham team has exceeded our expectations in terms of performance and dedication and is already heading towards prosecutions. I am confident that, based on the success of pilots in Birmingham and Glasgow, the scheme will become a national one.
"They have been taking calls at any hours of the day or night on the basis that people call when they are at their lowest ebb. Callers don't get an answerphone but a real person who cares about the issue and all information is confidential.
"Loan sharks intimidate people so much that it can be difficult to get witnesses to come forward to give evidence.
The team has been creative in how they deal with that."
He said a prime example was the case of a man who pleaded guilty at Birmingham Crown Court last week to running a consumer credit business without a licence and three counts of demanding money with menaces. He is believed to have extorted an estimated £800,000 from families, charging up to 8,000 per cent APR.
Mr Sutcliffe said officers had gathered so much information about him that he had no choice but to plead guilty.
The team is currently investigating a further 35 suspected loan sharks and expect more prosecutions soon.