ABU DHABI // Maqbool Asgar Ahmad, 47, is an extremely worried man. For the past few months, ruthless loan sharks known as the "blade mafia" in Dubai have been threatening to send henchmen to his home in south India, to harass his wife and young sons.
Mr Ahmad, who previously ran a lorry business in the emirate, said he lost all five of his vehicles after his former partner mismanaged the business.
He claims the man borrowed Dh15,000 from the loan sharks two years ago but absconded, leaving him to deal with the consequences.
"The money lender is now demanding that I pay back Dh50,000, which includes interest," said Mr Ahmad, who is trying to arrange a work visa.
"I did not even know my partner had borrowed from him. Although the lender does not have my security cheque or hold my passport, he's threatening me.
"Last month, he showed me photos taken of my boys, their vehicles and pictures of my Bangalore apartment. He says if I don't pay him back, my family will have to bear the brunt."
Mr Ahmad said he had even contemplated suicide by drinking poison because he could not handle the threats to his family.
His story is not an isolated case. He is one of many expatriates who, unwittingly or knowingly, fall prey to the blade mafia, who charge exorbitant interest rates, demand signed blank cheques and hold passports as security for loans.
They earned the name "blade" because of their cut-throat rates - up to 120 per cent interest - and sometimes violent recovery methods.
The issue has come under increased scrutiny after a spate of suicides, particularly an Indian family of three who were found hanged in Ras Al Khaimah two years ago.
"UAE law prohibits this kind of money lending and it is illegal to demand the borrower's passport or anything else for this illegal transaction," said Rashid Tahlak, a Dubai-based criminal lawyer at Rashid Tahlak Advocates and Legal Consultants.
He said the public could report a loan shark to the police.
The issue was highlighted by a report in the Ministry of Interior's 999 magazine last month, which reported "tens of millions of dirhams are in circulation in this business at interest rates of up to 10 per cent a month".
The magazine's editor-in-chief, Lt Col Awadh Saleh Al Kindi, said: "We urge everyone to stay away from these loan sharks and, where possible, inform the authorities … so we can stop their insidious practices."
"They fear their complaint will not be taken seriously," said Nhel Morona, the UAE country coordinator for Migrante Middle East, which campaigns on behalf of Filipino expatriates. "They agreed the lender's terms and are bound to honour it."
Workers with small salaries are often forced to turn to loan sharks, who charge 10 to 20 per cent interest a month, said Bal Junio, a finance manager at an Abu Dhabi government company.
He advises Filipinos on how get out of debt through financial literacy workshops.
"The lenders charge excessive rates of interest and the borrower agrees to the payment terms out of desperation," he said.
Those who turn to loan sharks either find it tedious to deal with banks' requirements, or are simply not eligible for a bank loan.
Banks ask for a salary certificate, a three-month bank statement, a copy of their passport with a UAE visa page, and other paperwork.
The minimum monthly salary required to apply for a personal loan is Dh5,000, but some banks set a higher salary criteria for what they call "high-risk nationalities", a Dubai-based banker said.
"In my bank, Filipinos should have a monthly salary of Dh10,000 a month before we can process their loan application," he said.
Indian welfare workers regularly warn expatriates against turning to illegal gangs who promise quick, hassle-free loans. However, social organisations said the number of victims continues to rise as a result of the demand for quicker loans.
"I am absolutely against such illegal gangs," said KV Shamsudheen, the chairman of the Pravasi Bandhu Welfare Trust. "But the business is flourishing because victims are approaching them and are willing to do anything to get a loan."
He uses radio advertising to urge expatriates to live within their means and avoid taking out loans from illegal money lenders or even banks.