For a desperate businessman drowning in debt and facing the loss of his restaurant, it was an offer too tempting to turn down.
Having been refused help by the bank but desperate to keep his business alive, 50-year-old Stefano accepted a loan of €20,000 from shadowy “friends of friends.”
With the injection of cash, he was able to pay his five employees’ wages and keep afloat his restaurant, in the town of Foggia in the southern region of Puglia.
But it was not long before he realised the nature of the deal he had entered into - two weeks later, the “friends” came back to tell him that with interest, he now owed them €50,000.
It was a textbook mafia operation - one which is likely to be replicated many times over as the coronavirus pandemic plunges Italy into a deep economic crisis.
After two months of lockdown, the economy is predicted to contract by 10 per cent this year and thousands of businesses are facing bankruptcy.
There will be rich pickings for the loan sharks working for Italy’s mafia organisations, from the Camorra in Naples to Cosa Nostra in Sicily and the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria, the toe of the Italian boot.
“The mafia clans know full well that a person who needed to borrow €20,000 has no way of paying them €50,000. It’s an impossible sum, set deliberately high,” Marcello Cozzi, a Catholic priest who runs a charity that helps the victims of usury, told The Telegraph.
“They know he cannot get come up with the money. Instead, they are looking to take over his business. Then they’ll use it to launder money. Often the owner is allowed to stay on as an employee. That’s the way it works.”
Loan sharking is nothing new for Italy’s mafia networks. But it is about to get a lot more commonplace as the fall-out from the pandemic, which killed more than 32,000 people in Italy, threatens to create hundreds of thousands of jobless.
Ordinary Italians are having to forego rent and mortgage payments just to put food on the table for their children.
Some struggle to pay for the wi-fi that their kids need to access distance learning, with no prospect of schools reopening until September.
“The mafia has been involved in loan-sharking for 20 or 30 years but right now I have the impression that it is going to explode in scale,” said Father Cozzi, head of the Anti-Usury Foundation.
Unlike many business owners who find themselves in the grip of the mafia, Stefano did not meekly give up his business. Instead, with the help of Father Cozzi, he contacted the police.
An investigation is now underway into the attempted extortion. The “friends” who leant him the money do not yet know that he has gone to the authorities. When they find out, he is likely to be in danger.
“I understood straightaway that I had made a huge mistake,” said Stefano, who is married with two children.
“It risked destroying everything that I had worked so hard to achieve. I feel ashamed but in the end, I said ‘enough’.”
“This case is typical,” said Anna Sergi, a criminologist and mafia expert at the University of Essex.
“The mafia targets these types of small businesses because sole owners are easy to control. Loansharking is a form of extortion. The point is not to make money from the loan, but to acquire the business by making impossible demands on the repayment.”
Businesses are not only used as a front for laundering illicit revenue from drug trafficking and other criminal activities.
They can also lend an air or respectability and normality to the local mafia clan.
“The less assuming the business, the better. There are plenty of mafia bosses who have respectable day jobs. A boss from the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria worked in a laundromat,” said Dr Sergi. “You can establish yourself outwardly as just an ordinary guy.”
As Italy’s recession begins to bite, there is alarm over the threat posed by organised crime to hard-working businesses struggling to pay wages, bills and rent.
The crisis offers mafia clans an opportunity “to carry out loan sharking activities and infiltrate crisis-hit businesses with the aim of laundering money,” according to the Bank of Italy.
The Italian government’s Covid-19 taskforce has warned that the hospitality and tourism sectors are particularly vulnerable because they are facing “a lack of liquidity that will expose them to loan sharking”.
Business owners who refuse or fail to pay the loan sharks risk “broken legs, their dogs having their throats cut, their daughters threatened with rape, being beaten up,” according to Roberto Saviano, a mafia expert whose best-selling book Gomorrah investigated the Camorra in Naples.
“The pandemic and the government’s incapacity to handle it are exposing the entire economic system to a crisis, the extent of which we have not yet comprehended,” he wrote in a recent essay for La Repubblica newspaper.
The number of criminal offences has plunged during Italy’s lockdown – the only crime to have increased is usury, according to the interior ministry.
In the first three months of this year there was a 10 per cent increase in the crime of usury nationwide and in some regions such as Puglia and Campania it was up by 15 per cent.
A national anti-usury network, the Consulta Nazionale Anti-Usura, reports that requests for help have increased by 100 per cent in the last two months.
Luciana Lamorgese, the minister of the interior, has appealed to businesses who find themselves in difficulty not to resort to the mafia but to turn to the State.
Entrepreneurs who denounce approaches by the mob and help the police with investigations are entitled to ask for money from the National Anti-Racket Fund.
But like many aspects of Italian government, disbursement of the funds can be slow and tangled in red tape.
“We’re trying to speed up the processing of requests so that we can give a response to those who find themselves in difficulty,” said Annapaola Porzio, the head of the agency.
“It’s undeniable that the process is slow, at a time when this help can mean the difference between life and death for hundreds of small businesses.”
Earlier this month, police conducted a series of raids in which they arrested 91 alleged mafiosi, accusing them of targeting companies hit hard by the crisis.
The raids were conducted by hundreds of police officers in Palermo, Sicily, as well as in northern Italy – testament to the mob’s interest in Italy’s wealthiest regions.
The suspects, from Sicily’s Cosa Nostra, were accused of crimes ranging from extortion and fraud to money laundering.
“Look, we pay cash,” suspects told business owners in intercepted exchanges, according to Francesco Lo Voi, chief prosecutor in Palermo.
The government has pledged a €55 billion package to help families and businesses weather the economic storm brought about by Covid-19.
But there are complaints that the money has been slow to arrive and government aid is itself highly vulnerable to being skimmed off by organised crime.
“In the midst of the pandemic crisis, we have some people who are flush with cash while the State is struggling to help business,” said Dr Sergi.
“If you are a business that had problems before the pandemic, now you are really at the end of the line. We saw loan sharking in the 2008 financial crisis and now we are seeing it again. But this time it could be much worse.”