GANGSTERS control chunks of Scotland's booming payday loan market, police have warned.
Senior detectives believe organised crime groups have muscled into a sector known for its extortionate interest rates. Officers have already shared intelligence on the gangland links of as yet unspecified payday loan firms with financial regulators, and investigations into them are under way.
Assistant Chief Constable Ruariadh Nicolson, of Police Scotland, said: "There is evidence organised crime is involved in payday loans. Nobody is suggesting every payday loan company is part of an organised crime group. But we want to dismantle the ones that are by whatever means we can. It may be just looking to the regulator. It may be by HMRC. Or Police Scotland. We will use the most appropriate tool."
Scottish law enforcement has increasingly used the civil powers of its partner agencies, such as councils, to target gangland front companies in everything from the licensed trade and taxis to security and childcare.
Mr Nicolson and his colleagues said they wished to support non-criminal lenders against competition from criminalised firms through the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), which regulates the consumer credit market.
Gangs, especially in poorer neighbourhoods of Glasgow and west central Scotland, have long been involved in illegal lending, loan sharking, and related businesses, such as private letting. Payday loans, sources stress, now offer relatively good legal cover for laundering income from drugs, prostitution and racketeering while at the same time providing significant profits in their own rights. Insiders say they also provide another way in which crime groups can tighten their grip on communities.
John Cuddihy, Police Scotland's head of organised crime and counter-terrorism, said: "People have got this idea that organised crime is all about drugs and contraband and firearms. But it is much more. Crime groups will attempt to control the economic wellbeing of the entire community, its transport infrastructure, its housing.
"We see individuals who have been put into a house owned by organised crime. If they fail to make the rent they are due then they are simply directed towards a payday loan from a firm owned and controlled by the same crime group. Their whole wellbeing is controlled by organised crime."
Police are now pursuing investigations into payday loan firms with links to organised crime. At the weekend, the Church of Scotland welcomed a call by the Institute for Public Policy Research for a windfall tax to fund a new generation of affordable lenders to compete with payday loan firms. The Scottish Government convened a summit on payday lending this week.
Paul Rooney, treasurer of Glasgow City Council and a member of the Scottish Policy Authority, believes lenders are sucking the lifeblood out of some neighbourhoods in Glasgow.
He said: "This is a disturbing development in a trade that fuels some serious problems in our communities. It is extremely frustrating that, despite the harm and the damage being done, too many of those who should be showing leadership are stuck talking and wringing their hands instead of taking serious, long-term and committed action."
Russell Hamblin-Boone, chief executive of the Consumer Finance Association, which represents short-term lenders, called it a very worrying development.