Loyalist leeches and the Christmas crackdown on illegal money lending
A notorious loan shark who had Â£ 400,000 in assets seized by cops investigating his crime has called the allegations that he returned from loaning the money “a bunch of balls”.
Convicted paramilitary Mel Matthews barged in when challenged by Sunday Life over allegations that he is still giving high-interest loans to families of skins in the run-up to Christmas.
“I mean f ** k all, that’s a bunch of balls and you know it,” he raged before hanging up the phone.
Matthews, based at Antrim, is accused of charging up to 50% interest on every Â£ 100 he lends, with the rate doubling to 100%, then 200%, and so on if the money is not reimbursed on time.
This shameful practice, common in areas with a loyalist paramilitary presence, is targeted by the PSNI and the Ministry of Justice in the run-up to Christmas.
A single mom told cops how, when she got into debt with pawn shops, her bank card was confiscated and her bi-weekly benefits stolen for months.
She said: “They threatened to hurt the children, so they took my bank card and when my money (benefits) came in every two weeks they took the land.”
It is at this time of year, when struggling parents go into debt to give their families holiday gifts, that loan sharks are a financial slaughter. Some borrowers who cannot repay end up selling drugs to the paramilitaries.
Running television commercials warning of the dangers of lending money, Justice Minister Naomi Long said, âIn the current climate, people face real financial challenges.
âWith the ongoing pandemic, rising energy and fuel costs and Christmas just around the corner, many people are vulnerable and really worried about how to make ends meet.
âWe know from research and evidence that paramilitary gangs and those associated with them use illegal money lending to try to coerce and control people and communities for their own benefit. “
Mel Matthews, who also has a side business selling expensive watches and cars, is a good example of having made a fortune over the years by lending money.
Ten years ago, the 61-year-old was forced to cede a huge house in Kells to the Serious Organized Crime Agency (Soca) amid allegations of a loan shark.
He had also frozen Â£ 406,000 in assets, including two houses, three land, four luxury cars and a high-end motorbike.
During a lengthy court battle, detectives accused Matthews of being “closely involved in illegal activities, including loan sharking and protection fundraising, as well as other activities commonly associated with the loyalist paramilitary.”
They also said he participated in false accounting, deception, tax evasion and that he “had an extravagant lifestyle, despite having only a very modest legitimate income. “.
Matthews had previously been jailed for 10 years in 1977 for shooting a UDR man in a failed flight in east Belfast. He was UDA inmate at Maze Prison, but joined the Red Hand Commando after his release.
However, the thug ended up being kicked out of the terrorist gang following several complaints about his loaning money, which is one of the most difficult crimes for authorities to prevent as nearly all of them go unreported.
A government move to curb the practice in loyalist areas of Carrickfergus, Larne, East Belfast and North Down was canceled over the summer as it failed to attract support from community groups.
The executive had offered a Â£ 168,000 one-year contract to a lead partner to work on the project, but received no offers.
Loyalist sources say it’s because the UVF and UDA earn so much more from illegal money lending, and knowing that it’s a near-impossible-to-prove crime adds to its appeal.
This newspaper is aware of a case in Larne where a man had to hand over bank cards and then a rental car to settle a debt. He continued to reimburse the vehicle each month while a UDA boss kept it as his own.
Another poignant story told to police concerns a newly fired single mother who borrowed Â£ 1,000 from a lender she “had known her whole life”. When she couldn’t afford to repay, he took her bank card and stole her benefits for months.
The distraught woman revealed, âWe had nothing to live on. I couldn’t pay the rent, I couldn’t heat the house. I couldn’t take care of the children. It just got worse and worse. “
Two years ago, the PSNI appointed a specialist officer to work with the Paramilitary Crime Task Force to crack down on loan sharking. This was in response to the difficulty of bringing charges against those involved in the practice. A spokesperson for the executive office said: âThe Communities in Transition project aims to support and empower communities most affected by paramilitary, criminality and organized crime and is designed to reduce vulnerabilities and restrict the terrain exploited by the paramilitaries.
âTackling the problem of monetary exploitation is a recurring problem in a number of areas and is known to be linked to drug trafficking.
âIn January 2021, the executive office attempted to find a delivery partner to provide support to those most vulnerable to currency exploitation in CIT areas. No offers were received at this time.
“However, a number of community security projects have since been awarded which are designed to address both area-specific issues and a number of issues common to all areas of CIT, including monetary exploitation. . Project implementing partners are working to determine how best to address these issues in each of their areas.
PSNI Deputy Police Chief Mark McEwan is aware that as Christmas approaches, the paramilitaries will attempt to exploit the most vulnerable.
He said, âThese criminals are setting unreasonable interest rates and costly penalties that borrowers cannot afford. When people fall behind in their payments, they use the threat of exposure, embarrassment and violence. They make borrowers believe that there is no way out.
“I encourage anyone who feels they have been caught in such a situation to report it to the police on the non-urgent number 101.”
Help is also available at the website: www.endingtheharm.com, which features first-hand accounts of people trapped in debt by paramilitary lenders.