PEOPLE struggling to make ends meet are being urged to avoid ruthless loan sharks at all costs as latest figures show debt advice enquiries have hit a record high, council leaders warn.

The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents councils in England and Wales, is urging people desperate for a loan to steer clear of illegal money lenders who typically charge sky-high interest rates, rely on extortion and are likely to plunge them into worse debt for a longer period.

It is calling for tougher sentences for loan sharks and says anyone experiencing money problems should contact councils and their partner organisations who are working increasingly closer together to develop better financial support for households with debt and repayment worries.

The loan sharks warning comes as latest figures show that 12,652 people a week in the UK are seeking help for problem debt – the equivalent of one person every 48 seconds.

The number of enquiries made to debt advice charity Step Change in 2018 was 657,930 – a 14 per cent rise on the 577,678 enquiries in 2014, and 6 per cent up on the 619,946 enquiries made in 2017.

Last week, Blackburn with Darwen Council’s executive board voted to approve a stop loan sharks charter which will encourage the council to work jointly with the England Illegal Money Lending Team to tackle the problem.

Recently, the council was involved with the production of Landsharks, a 15 minute film raising awareness of loan sharks, which was shown at Bureau Centre for Arts.

The film starred Shadsworth residents and follows the life of a young teenage boy whose mum is struggling to make ends meet.

Executive member for public health and wellbeing, Cllr Damian Talbot, said: "The issue of illegal money lending and loan sharks is a growing one.

"This affects a vulnerable group of people who are really at risk of being exploited by loan sharks who are utterly ruthless.

"It is a secretive and underground issue because people are struggling and turn to loan sharks then they do not feel able to talk about it and it spirals."