Thousands of people in Wales are caught in a trap. They need money fast, but can't get a loan from a bank. And that's why one kind of lender is flourishing.
Loan sharks live in the heart of communities, lending money to anyone who needs it. But if you can't pay it back, that friendly face can suddenly become a lot more sinister.
Around a thousand loan sharks are operating in Wales, lending money
illegally without a credit licence. And they're not afraid to use
violence or blackmail to get their cash back.
Steven Hay manages the Illegal Money Lending Unit which was set up to help the victims of loan sharks and bring the lenders to justice.
"Loan sharks are a very big problem in Welsh communities", he told X-Ray. "We're getting a lot of calls from people in miserable situations, we're working on cases in more than half of the local authority areas in Wales.
"And we think from the calls that we're getting that the problem is increasing as a result of the current economic downturn. Loan sharks prey on the vulnerable, and they really do bleed them until there's nothing left."
If you borrow from a loan shark, they often won't tell you how much you'll have to pay back. And the interest rates can be crippling. For one recent victim of a North Wales loan shark it was 149,000%.
The customers of loan sharks are often scared to speak out, in case of reprisals. But two victims agreed to tell X-Ray about their experiences - we agreed to protect their identities.
'Carol' first went to a money lender several years ago. "I was on a low income", she said. "I borrowed money for clothes for the children, food, electricity, gas and water bills. I met them through friends, who said they knew someone who'd lend me money.
"They didn't tell you how much interest you'd pay. You think they're a friend, you don't know any different." Carol borrowed a few hundred pounds but struggled to pay it back, so the loan shark lent her more money - and she was soon deep in debt.
"I was paying £1,000 pounds a month", she explained. "I didn't have any money left for myself. Then I borrowed more money off them again. I was paying them with my benefits and disability money.
"It was just hell because I had to make sure you paid them all the time. If I had enough money to buy food I would, if not, I'd go without. It was never ending, the loans were never coming down."
The 24 hour loan shark hotline is run by a special team based in Cardiff. The Illegal Money Lending Unit was set up to track down and prosecute loan sharks - using information from the public.
They also offer support to more than a hundred victims. "People are hesitant to come forward for a number of reasons," team manager Steven Hay explains.
"They're ashamed, embarrassed, scared. There can be threats, there can be offers of sexual favours - it can get quite horrible.
Steve described what happens when someone rings the hotline. "You get through to an investigator or a client support officer 24 hours of the day. They arrange what's needed with you, they arrange to meet and go through the problem.
"What we always say is that we look after the victim first before taking witness statements or taking court action, that's the priority to us."
The Illegal Money Lending Unit helps victims like 'Claire' (not her real name). "I borrowed four or five hundred pounds", she told X-Ray.
"I was still paying them two years later, it never seemed to end. I'd ask them when it would finish and they'd just give me excuses." When Claire lost her job she found it difficult to meet the repayments.
"I didn't have enough", she explained. "I couldn't eat properly, couldn't clothe my children properly. If I couldn't pay, they threatened to beat me up in front of my children.
"If the door knocked I'd be petrified, I constantly had my phone by my side and I''d lock the windows and doors. I had no confidence, I was so scared."
Claire only borrowed a few hundred pounds - but she actually paid the loan shark almost £4,000. Each loan shark may have hundreds of customers, so their profits can be huge.
Steven Hay's team carries out surveillance, to catch illegal lenders in the act. Ten Welsh loan sharks are currently awaiting prosecution and there are twenty five other cases in the pipeline. The unit also tries to educate people who are potential targets for loan sharks.
We followed Steve when he met a basic skills group in Trowbridge, Cardiff to discuss the dangers. The women in the group were aware of loan sharks operating in the city.
"I've been approached by a local store, myself and a friend, by a local shark. They approach you and in a matter of two hours you can have what you want off them," explained one woman.
Another commented: "It spreads so quickly, with people saying I've got this money and suddenly you have a big group of people who are into the same problem."
So what are the alternatives to loan sharks? Credit unions can be a cheap way to borrow money. They are community based schemes aimed at helping those who can't access loans otherwise.
But because members of the scheme usually have to save before they borrow, the desperate may turn to a loan shark instead.
Loan shark victims like Carol have lived in fear for years - and there have been times where it's all seemed too much.
"They are bullies, they threaten you with their heavies, they said they'd burn my house down and they said if you don't pay I'll come looking for you and kill you. It's made me feel really low, I even cut my wrists over it.
I thought if I'm dead they can't have any more money. The people who have helped me have been marvellous, if I didn't have them I would have killed myself."
Carol was given help and support from the Illegal Money Lending Unit, who advised her to stop paying as her loan was illegal and unenforceable.
"We look to protect the victim all the way through to the court case and beyond, so we can arrest the loan shark which takes the problem away for a certain period of time, we can then look to have strict bail conditions so they don't live in the area where they are causing the fear, in extreme circumstances and when we feel it necessary we can rehouse people.
Claire's money worries are far from over, but in future she won't be turning to a loan shark.
"I wish I'd never got involved in the beginning but you can't turn the clock back. It's not worth it. Even if they come across as nice, if you miss payments they'll threaten you and your family. But there is help out there."
If you need help, or you have any information about illegal money lending in your area, call the 24 hour loan shark hotline on 0300 123 3311.