Licensed to bill

HUMAN nature and the wheel of fortune being what they are, there will always be some people who get themselves into serious debt and find themselves unable to repay their creditors. Many countries have legal ways for the creditors to get at least partof their money back. Those methods are not always kind. Repossession of goods, freezing of assets and even eviction are considered legitimate weapons in the armoury of the most civilised debt-collector.

In Hongkong, the consequences of failing to pay can be life-threatening. Tales abound of loansharks whose methods of extracting repayment may include setting fire to homes or physical attacks on members of debtor's family. However, borrowers tend to assume they are safe from such brutal tactics if they are slow to repay loans from reputable institutions like banks and credit card companies. Sadly this is not always the case.

Lenders tend to leave debt collection to specialised operators. In most cases they expect the firms operating in their name to behave responsibly. However, some will turn a blind eye to the more unscrupulous methods employed on their behalf. Threats of physical violence to members of the debtor's family are more common than they should be. Other forms of intimidation are rife.

The Consumer Council's advice to debtors to turn to the police if they feel the intimidation has gone too far is worthy, but unlikely to have much effect. Nor is it helpful for the Deputy Secretary for Security to say the problem is not very serious. Such sentiments will be of little consolation to the victims.

Far more constructive are the suggestions from Legislative Councillors that debt collectors be licensed, and that credit organisations be held responsible for the actions of the companies they employ.

A proper legislative framework would go a long way towards cleaning up one of the scandals of the Hongkong credit industry.

It should also serve as a warning to loansharks that their turn for tighter regulation will come soon. If the Government is serious about combatting organised crime it should start at the level where the individual citizen is most at risk.