Young British administrator Steve Perry had never heard of payday loans when, three years ago, he wondered how to get the cash to spend a weekend away with friends.
Tired of scrimping on his low income, Perry went online to look for a solution, and was delighted to find a source of quick loans with few questions asked. But within eighteen months, he was £22,000 ($34,800, 26,300 euros) in debt and contemplating suicide.
"I couldn't tell anyone -- it swallowed me up whole," Perry, now 30, from Lancashire in northwest England, told AFP. "I sat in my car and cried my eyes out."
Perry had discovered the expanding world of British "payday lending" -- short-term, high-interest loans for small amounts designed to tide consumers over until their next paycheck arrives.
The loans are usually for amounts well under £1,000 and are agreed for up to a month, with interest rates that turn out to be gargantuan when expressed in annual terms.
Lender Wonga says its typical annual percentage rate (APR) is 4,214 percent. Its rivals include The Money Shop -- owned by US firm DFC Global and which has an aggressive UK expansion policy -- as well as Payday UK, Payday Express, Quicksilver, Cheque Centres and QuickQuid.
Since his debt spiral, Perry has become a vocal campaigner against the industry, which leapt into the space left by the contraction in traditional consumer credit, and grew as the economic downturn bit and living costs rose.
Payday loan stores mushroomed on Britain's more down-at-heel high streets, while ads on buses, radio and TV suggest borrowers might use the loans for occasions from university beer binges to taking a taxi to see a dying relative.
Statutory watchdog Consumer Focus estimated the number taking out payday loans in Britain quadrupled from 2006 to 2009, when 1.2 million people borrowed £1.2 billion. Analysts Stephens say that figure was £1.7 billion by 2010.
Housing charity Shelter said in January that almost a million people had taken out a payday loan to help pay rent or mortgage costs in the last year.
The sector is lightly regulated in Britain compared with elsewhere, but the Office of Fair Trading, which enforces consumer protection law, launched a major review in February amid concerns lenders were exploiting people in financial trouble.
"We don't have customers with problems, we've just got campaigners and activists who don't use the product with problems," said John Lamidey, chief executive of industry body the Consumer Finance Association.
"We have got hundreds of thousands of people who use payday loans really successfully. You know up front how much it's going to cost... It's so simple, so easy, and people like it," he said. "People do not want long-term debt."
Lamidey blamed rogue players outside his organisation for many of the horror stories highlighted in the press, and predicted these would go out of business or be bought up in an inevitable process of consolidation.
Online lender Wonga, which pitches itself as a technology-based firm, says its credit risk algorithm has cut down non-repayment rates to seven percent.
And Wonga and other firms argue their apparently astronomical APRs, which they are legally obliged to publicise, are meaningless because the loans are designed for the short term.
But this is a sore point for campaigners like Perry, who believe lenders make a killing from interest on late payments and repeat borrowing. Consumer Focus research found almost 30 percent of payday loans are not paid back on schedule.
"I borrowed 19 times from Wonga in 18 months. They didn't even need to know anything about my other loans -- they had enough information there to see a clear history of problems," said Perry.
"I went to them looking for a solution, and they didn't want to know."
Wonga says it has a self-enforced cap on "rollovers" -- in which loans are automatically extended, with interest piling up -- and does not encourage serial borrowing.
Perry says he borrowed from several lenders and admits: "I screwed up. But that doesn't justify the amount of trouble people can get into."
He and other campaigners want a limit on rollovers, better credit checks, and loans recorded in a mandatory database. In some states of the United States, caps on rollovers or loans per year have effectively crippled the industry.
After he began talking to the media about his story, Perry found that many of the companies that had lent to him became surprisingly helpful, some even cancelling his debts.
But other borrowers are still looking for a way out.
Howard, a 36-year-old who did not wish to give his surname, started with a £250 loan a year ago but is now trapped in a cycle of having to borrow £800 each month to service the debt -- a sum that is set to keep on rising.
With multiple lenders reluctant to agree to better repayment terms, he now fears that he may lose his home.
"People think you're really bad with money but it's not a question of that," he said.
"If you're on a moderate income, things are so expensive nowadays, it's hard to save for a contingency, a backup," he said, while insisting that "nobody can go through life mistake free."