Sunday, January 06, 2008

In the grip of moneylenders

THE number of people contacting a State agency set up to give advice about out-of-control debts has almost trebled.

The new figures emerged as the Christmas spending splurge sent more desperate people into the grip of moneylenders as families come under increasing pressure to spend money they do not have.

Yesterday MABS (Money Advice and Budgeting Service) reported a 184pc explosion in the numbers contacting it last year.

More than 12,400 new cases were dealt with by MABS last year in some 65 offices around the country. In total, 19,178 people made contact with MABS in 2007, and a new phone hotline set up last October got 1,750 calls in just two months.

Most of those seeking help were under the age of 40, receiving social welfare payments and renting accommodation.

The majority of those who sought help from the State-funded MABS got into difficulty meeting repayments on money owed to banks or other financial institutions.

But one in five people have difficulty making repayments to their credit union, while large numbers owe money to moneylenders or debt collection agencies.

MABS said more and more people were turning to moneylenders to tide them over the Christmas spending season.

Moneylenders can legally charge up to 188pc to people for loans. This means some borrowers are having to repay €285 for every €100 borrowed from licensed moneylenders.

Yesterday, Labour's Roisin Shortall said the Government has an obligation to provide new sources of credit for low-income families to protect them from excessive interest rates charged by licensed money-lenders.

"Imagine being so desperate for cash that you are willing to repay almost three times the original loan over a few short months," Ms Shortall said.

She pointed out that 15 moneylenders registered with the Financial Regulator can charge interest of 150pc or more, while 30 can charge 100pc or more.

Minister for Social and Family Affairs Martin Cullen urged people who have overspent at Christmas and can't repay their bills to contact MABS.

Visiting a MABS office in Dublin, he said: "Christmas is one of the most expensive times of the year and when the bills start to come through the letterbox in January, people are faced with the reality of how much they have spent or borrowed to get through Christmas.

"Help is available; it is non-judgmental, practical and confidential and comes at the cost of a 1890 phone call. I would encourage anyone who is experiencing difficulties with their finances to contact MABS for assistance."

Meanwhile, desperate families and tenants left out of pocket after Christmas have begun to contact support groups for help.

National housing agency Threshold said calls to its centre had increased sharply in recent days with the arrival of the cold snap.

* The MABS helpline is on lo-call 1890 283438
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