THEY prey on the vulnerable and desperate and leave them fearing for their lives.
Families in Hampshire are among those caught in a vicious cycle of intimidation and spiralling debts at the hands of illegal loan sharks.
Now children as young as five are to be taught about the dangers of borrowing from unlicensed lenders in a hard-hitting educational campaign.
It is hoped they will pass on what they learn to their parents.
The England Illegal Money Lending Team (IMLT) has launched a new scheme channelling thousands of pounds confiscated from the criminals to fund education packs for primary and secondary schools.
So far 14 schools in Southampton and Hampshire have applied for the lesson plans, aimed at youngsters aged five to 19.
The cartoon-illustrated packs – which include a menacing shark and tiny penguin – will warn children about the pitfalls of unscrupulous lenders and where to seek help.
They also offer advice on managing their money wisely and the benefits of credit unions.
Bosses and youth workers at key organisations and charities have also expressed interest, as well as representatives from Hampshire police, Southampton City Council and Hampshire County Council.
The IMLT investigates and prosecutes lenders in partnership with Trading Standards.
It has teamed up with financial educational consultancy WA Partnership for the project, which launched yesterday.
IMLT head Tony Quigley said: “Money management is a vital part of children’s education.
“It is important we develop an understanding of the dangers of loan sharks with our youngsters.
“Not only will this help to send a preventative message when children reach their adult life.
“But it is hoped that they will also share what they have learnt with their families, so they know where to turn if they have been a victim of this crime.”
National Trading Standards board chairman Lord Toby Harris said: “These resources are designed to help children develop an understanding of money management and prevent them from falling victim to loan sharks.
“The sooner we educate these young consumers about the pitfalls of loan sharks, the more likely they are to make solid financial decisions.”
Around 310,000 families are estimated to be using loan sharks nationally – taking out an average of £350 in loans.
But spiralling interest rates of mean lenders are paying a combined £700 million back to them.
To report a loan shark contact the 24/7 confidential hotline on 0300 555 2222.
Southampton and Hampshire schools which have applied for information packs:
St James CE Primary School, West End
St Denys Primary School, Southampton
St Winifred’s School, Southampton
Sholing Junior School, Southampton
Oasis Academy Lordshill, Southampton
The Polygon School, Southampton
Oakwood Primary School, Southampton
Bassett Green Primary School, Southampton
Shirley Warren Learning Campus Primary, Shirley
St Mark’s CE Primary School, Shirley
Brookfield Community School, Sarisbury Green
St John the Baptist CE Primary School, Titchfield Common
Newtown CE Primary, Gosport.
Brockhurst Junior School, Gosport