Illegal loan sharks are carrying out physical assaults on indebted people in Northern Ireland, a report has said.
The region is a personal debt hotspot and criminals are taking advantage by targeting victims such as those on benefits, people with drugs problems, or those running struggling small businesses, the review of organised crime warned.
Borrowers are often charged extortionate interest rates and failure to pay can prompt threats or seizure of goods.
The report said: "Analysis carried out by PSNI last year indicated that a number of loan sharks were operating locally, with victims ranging from vulnerable people with drug or alcohol dependencies, to those on benefits, to small businesses."
The information was contained in the Organised Crime Task Force annual report for last year.
Some 33 potential victims of human trafficking were rescued, 30 fuel laundering plants dismantled, ?13 million in illegal drugs seized and ?4.5 million of criminal assets recovered.
The report said the economic downturn has led to a decrease in lending by financial institutions to clients with less than perfect credit ratings and an increased dependence on alternative lending options such as social loans, credit unions, pawnbrokers, door step lenders, pay day loan companies and also loan sharks.
Benefits books and Post Office cards are often held as collateral against the loan, and failure to pay can result in threats, physical assault, seizure of goods or in the client being forced to carry out an illegal task on behalf of the loan shark, the document added.
Northern Ireland has the highest rate of economic inactivity in the UK, providing opportunities for racketeers.
The report said: "Organised crime gangs are often fluid, with members changing depending on the skills needed for a particular enterprise.
"They will also adapt to the environment in which they are operating by changing the types of crime they are involved in, developing new expertise and exploiting perceived weaknesses and loopholes."
Key findings include:
- Law enforcement agencies in Northern Ireland have seen an increase in the use of "electronic money" and pre-pay cards to facilitate fraud and money laundering, with a notable increase in the use of professional facilitators as organised crime gangs seek to circumvent money laundering legislation.
- The emergence of legal highs has been challenging for law enforcement and also increases the risks for users who may be unaware of the true nature of the substance they are taking. A growing illicit market in prescription drugs is increasingly being exploited by organised crime gangs keen to make money. The extortion of those involved in drugs supply has also become a way for paramilitary groups to raise money and exert control over the community.
- Increasing pressures on the environment and a European commitment to reduce the amount of waste being sent to landfill has created a black market in waste disposal.
- The increased use of the internet and online shopping has been exploited by organised crime gangs who take advantage of the increased amount and type of counterfeit goods available.
- Human exploitation has become a growing area of concern as international organised crime gangs have become increasingly involved in organised prostitution and the trafficking of human beings for the purposes of both sexual and labour exploitation. It is an area that organised criminals see as offering high profits.
- As fuel and tobacco become increasingly expensive, organised crime gangs are involved in laundering and smuggling. The waste product from laundering plants has been found in areas of natural beauty and causes extensive environmental damage.
Justice Minister David Ford said: "Behind virtually every successful raid, every successful seizure, is a law enforcement investigation, often complex and resource intensive and often involving more than one agency.
"We should not lose sight of the impact of the actions taken by the various law enforcement agencies - they have saved lives."