Usurious loan. It’s a term that could conjure up historical images of shadowy organized crime figures granting dodgy loans at exorbitant interest rates to desperate customers, usually followed by threats of violence if the loans are not repaid.
Unfortunately, loan sharks are alive and well in 2015 and continue to profit from the financial misfortunes of others. Last month, the two top leaders of an Albanian criminal organization operating in the Philadelphia area were sentenced to lengthy federal prison terms for running a violent loan sharking and illegal gambling ring. Ylli Gjeli, the boss, and Fatimir Mustafaraj, the muscle, were convicted late last year after a six-week trial. Two other defendants were convicted at the same trial.
From 2002 to 2013, Gjeli and Mustafaraj ran the multi-million dollar criminal enterprise with two main sources of income: loan sharking and illegal gambling. The operation’s illegal gambling arm included an online sports betting website that contributed more than $2.9 million in gross profits to the group’s criminal coffers. There was often a crossover between the two arms of the organization – when customers could not cover their gambling losses, the bookmakers sent them to the loan shark side of the house.
The illegal activity took place at various Philadelphia bars and cafes owned or controlled by the organization. In addition to the gambling operation, Gjeli, Mustafaraj and company generated money by providing loans to customers at interest rates ranging from 104% to 395% and demanding weekly repayments.
These requests for reimbursement were almost always accompanied by acts of intimidation. Clients have been threatened with firearms, hatchets and threats of physical harm to themselves or their family members. In a number of cases, perhaps to create the false impression that the Albanians were part of a bigger and more powerful organization, customers were told that “people from New York” were ready to hurt anyone who didn’t pay not.
Gjeli and Mustafaraj not only directed the criminal activities of their underlings – which included debt collectors and bookmakers – they also got their hands dirty by directly funding loans, intimidating and threatening to use violence against customers to collect loan repayments, and physically assaulting subordinates and associates who robbed the organization or failed to collect their debts on time.
According to Philadelphia FBI Special Agent in Charge Edward Hanko, Gjeli and Mustafaraj twice took advantage of their victims. “They gave loans at outrageous interest rates to those who couldn’t get loans from traditional sources,” he explained, “and then used threats and violence to collect on those illegal loans. “.
The investigation revealed that the Lion Bar, an establishment owned by Gjeli, served as the main hub of the organisation’s criminal activities – it was where Gheli, Mustafaraj and their associates met current and potential borrowers. What they didn’t realize was that one of their borrowers was actually an undercover FBI agent, and in one particular meeting details of a $50,000 loan came out. were developed with him. Gjeli informed our undercover agent that his limbs would be broken if he did not repay what he owed in a timely manner.
Also during the investigation, law enforcement was able to make over 400 audio recordings and numerous surveillance videos of criminal activity. In August 2013, arrests took place, including those of Gjeli and Mustafaraj. And the FBI executed a series of search warrants at related businesses, homes, vehicles and storage locker. Law enforcement recovered firearms, cash, computers, phones, CCTV, loan applications, loan records and gambling records. good records of his criminal activities and much of the evidence seized in August was presented at trial.
This evidence, along with trial testimony from many of Gjeli and Mustafaraj’s clients—and even members of their own criminal organization—was enough to convince a jury of the defendants’ guilt.
And as with many successful investigations, the FBI didn’t do it alone: our Philadelphia field office worked closely with the Pennsylvania State Police, New Jersey State Police, Montgomery County Detective Office and the Internal Revenue Service to dismantle a very dangerous and prolific system. criminal enterprise.