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A central component of the cyberpunk genre is the idea of corporations rising to be the dominant power in the world.

I'm working with a setting where urban centers are safe because the corps police them, but the countryside is completely lawless because there's no profit in sending security there.

So the cities are somewhat disconnected. Rich people travel freely by air between urban centers, but poor people largely stay within a single city.

The problem: Fake identities are a common cyberpunk trope I'd like to play with as well. But if there's little communication between cities (for the underclass) then it seems like simply skipping town and changing your name might be enough to avoid repaying your (non-corporate) debts.

The question: How does a loan shark make sure they get paid in a cyberpunk setting where the rumor-networks for each city are largely independent and fake identities are a purchasable commodity?

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    $\begingroup$ I wonder how would you explain the idea of loan sharks. In real world, they prey on people who can't get bank loans because government limits on bank loans percentage and fees makes it impossible for banks to set fees high enough to offset the risk, and earn money even if ultimately some of them will never pay. But in cyberpunk realities, with effectively no government restrictions on megacorps, why would these corporations leave such a lucrative market share to loan sharks? $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Jan 18 at 14:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Mołot - many of these solutions also solve the problem of "how does the fixer ensure the runners play it straight?" $\endgroup$
    – codeMonkey
    Jan 18 at 15:51
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    $\begingroup$ Something to consider: it is generally beneficial to support at least a puppet regime government to solve problems like this one, and otherwise attempt to enforce the rights of the elite property holders and to protect their interests. Even if the cities are ultracapitalist nation-states unto themselves, identifying the enemies of capitalism helps quash resistance and recoup losses. That is to say, it makes less sense for there to be no communication on the matter, and more sense that people are masking their irises and fingerprints, in keeping with the theme. $\endgroup$
    – Sean Boddy
    Jan 18 at 19:01
  • $\begingroup$ How is that different from our own society, where a loan shark wants to get paid in a setting where the rumor-networks for each city are largely independent and fake identities are a purchasable commodity? $\endgroup$ Jan 20 at 23:23
  • $\begingroup$ @RobbieGoodwin - In the real world neither of those things are true. I know people in at least a dozen cities, so I am (at least a little) connected to those rumor networks. And while you may be able to buy a fake ID that's good enough to get past a bar-tender, if you try using it to board an airplane you're going to end up in jail. The difference, like I said in the question, is that travel between cities is restricted (influencing the rumor network) and government is basically non-existent (influencing the availability of fake IDs). $\endgroup$
    – codeMonkey
    Jan 21 at 13:18

12 Answers 12

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There is a dedicated job for the person or the group of persons who can connect rumor networks of different cities and locations.

One can change their name, but if Peter Parker suddenly appeared in Lost Hope and Bruce Wayne suddenly disappeared 2 days earlier in Bazingaville after failing to return a loan, tying some knots and pulling some strings might lead to some interesting findings.

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    $\begingroup$ What a great idea. It likely doesn't require of the OP that they drastically change the world-building or plot, yet it invites some exploration if OP wants it. And if they don't, it can simply be mentioned casually and without much care, i.e. "Contact Mick. He'll connect the dots between our missing friend and the rumors over in [blah] city, and find out wherever he's hidden." $\endgroup$
    – A. Kvåle
    Jan 18 at 13:34
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    $\begingroup$ "The street finds its own uses for things" - becomes - "the streets reinvents the credit check." $\endgroup$
    – codeMonkey
    Jan 18 at 15:28
  • $\begingroup$ I might take this further, and say there's a dedicated job of "monitor all transit between cities." Corps would pay to know what other corps are moving from city to city, and various criminals would pay to know which caravans are worth trying to rob. Identifying people skipping out on their debts might be a kind of side gig - just something these people do in the course of their job that they found a way to monetize. $\endgroup$
    – codeMonkey
    Jan 21 at 15:50
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Skipping town and changing your name would be enough...

But it's anything but simple. Remember, the area between cities is a lawless wasteland. Trying to cross it alone is just a complicated form of suicide. There are industrial transports and corporate-sponsored passenger services, but they're expensive and deeply suspicious of last-minute, anonymous passengers - who are probably scouting for the raiders who attack transport lines.

So if you're in trouble in one city and you want to get to another, your options are an expensive passenger ticket (and if you could afford that, you wouldn't be fleeing the city from debt...) or a dangerous ride stowing away on an industrial convoy. Or you could try daring the wastes and probably die. Or, you could stick around and try to deal with your loan shark, who at least wants you to be alive enough to make payments.

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    $\begingroup$ Or of course, you just join the raiders where names and pasts are a meaningless trifle. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Jan 18 at 11:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Separatrix That is, assuming they don't consider you as a meal first. Not to mention the generally brutal and short lives raiders tend to have. $\endgroup$ Jan 18 at 21:43
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    $\begingroup$ @GuidingOlive See also: "a complicated form of suicide". $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Jan 18 at 22:41
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    $\begingroup$ Not to mention that if you are able to impress them with your skills, you could probably get a job in the city. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Jan 19 at 0:27
  • $\begingroup$ The loan sharks can sell your organs and get their money back. It is an option for them to kill you if nothing else works. $\endgroup$
    – Neerkoli
    Jan 19 at 9:00
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Guarantee or guarantor

When banks give loan to somebody, they ask about some property as guarantee or a person as guarantor so that if a person runs away, the loan shark can confiscate the property or catch the guarantor.

Bounty hunters

He can put some head money on the person so that bounty hunters can hunt him. Bounty hunters will be trained to do their job and catch such a person.

Private investigators

Private investigators will keep an information about every person who has taken loan and is planning to flee. They will inform the loan shark before the person flees.

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    $\begingroup$ I definitely think the loan shark would be into leaning on people's family, but I'm not sure the return on investment makes sense for bounty hunters and PIs. I guess you could argue that the value of the deterrent might be worth more than the actual debt. $\endgroup$
    – codeMonkey
    Jan 18 at 15:33
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your augs as collateral

"ho, you want enough money to pay rent? sure, but if you don't pay me back by next week, a finger of your will stop working, and so on every week."

loanshark would have deal with augmentation corporation, that let them become owner of other people bodypart by setting a deactivation timer.

and when you arm isn't usable anymore, you will have to accept the loanshark new loan term.

sure, you might find modder to remove those pesky timer, but it wouldn't come cheap, and they would ask to be paid immediatly, especially to let you escape debt.

the good old fashioned way

skipping town might be easier there, but you better be sure that you have no friend or familly that you care about behind you because, they would most definitly have to pay for you under the menace of broken knee.

in conclusion

loanshark will be hesitant to loan to lonner who might skip town, but they would have a florishing buisness scamming regular people. if you have a low paying job and a familly, skipping town might just not be a viable option.

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  • $\begingroup$ The augs thing is certainly genre appropriate. I'm thinking maybe the loan shark could put them to work doing data processing / net mining. Like, your arms still works ... sort of. It's a little slow because 70% of its CPU is doing data processing. Next week it'll be 75%. $\endgroup$
    – codeMonkey
    Jan 18 at 15:25
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Organized crime

The loan shark and the coyote are either the same person/organization, or they are associates. The coyote who gave you a new identity knows who and where you are, therefore so does the shark.

Fail to pay your deeds and the following may happen to you in any combination:

  • Your new identity is lost; you wither become a no one, which will cause all sorts of mayhem in the new city, or you revert to your old ID which causes other sorts of mayhem;

  • You lose access to all your accounts based on both the old and new ID's, possibly losong the assets in them.

  • You become the target of hitmen. The street samurai are now after you.

  • AI will make your presence in the metaverse a new kind of hell.

  • You lose your direct access to the metaverse.

  • If youbdon't lose the new ID, then the police in the new city is tipped abou a crime committed by that ID.

This all may or may not be reversed and undone if you pay your debts to the loan shark, plus interests and a fine for their trouble.

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    $\begingroup$ They can also revoke a faked medical ID if you either want to avoid being jabbed by medical corps or have some rare illness and want to escape a kind of lifetime quarantine... Unfortunately it is close in our reality :( $\endgroup$
    – mpasko256
    Jan 18 at 12:06
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So the cities are somewhat disconnected.

I think you are not considering the consequences of this assertion strongly enough, and the impact on this has on "skipping town".

Firstly, if the cities are somewhat disconnected with lawless warbands roving around, I'd expect to see a throwback to medieval times with fortified cities and entry-exit control points. After all, it's quite likely that the roving warbands come nibbling at the edge of the city otherwise when they get hungry.

Secondly, there's disconnected and disconnected. Just because the common folks don't travel don't mean that there are no communications at all; I could imagine transport of industrial goods, for example as convoys (caravanes).

Thirdly, if no-one travels between cities (as an individual) no-one has the means to travel to. It's quite likely a large share of the population has no car, or motorized vehicle of any kind, and simply walks, bikes, or takes public transportations. This seriously hinders their mobility, and means they can't just hop in their car and drive away, even if they were willing to take the risk.

Fourthly, if anyone apart from corporate has a way to travel from city to city, it's the underworld. They're likely connected, for smuggling goods or people. And guess who's better acquainted with the underworld than Joe Average? The loansharks.

The above means that exiting the city is not easy, and entering another even less so:

  1. Using your real identity means that someone may check the logs, and know you left, furthermore:
  • You may need a fake authorization regardless, running the same risks as obtaining a fake identity.
  • Leaving in an official convoy means that anybody checking not only know you left, they also know where the convoy (and you) went; perhaps even before the convoys leaves, if there's a passenger manifest to file ahead of time.
  1. Attempting to use a fake identity is a risk.
  • Just because you can buy a fake identity doesn't mean the seller won't also sell you out if a loanshark comes knocking; better antagonize you than them.
  • There's a vast difference between a bouncer checking patrons to curb underage drinking and a well-automatized police checkpoint. Not that many people selling that good fake identities.
  1. Calling in the smugglers is a risk: once again, they may very well sell you out before, or after.

All in all, this means that:

  • Leaving town is not going to be easy, a well-connected loanshark may very well be tipped before you even try.
  • Leaving town without trace is going to be even harder, you may find a welcome committee on the other side if you using a convoy (officially or not).
  • And switching town without trace is even harder still, so that even if you do succeed in getting into the new town, you may still find someone knocking at your door sometimes later.

Oh... and forget joining the roving bands. Chances are they're in cahoots with the underworld of your city. After all, they need a place to get fresh goods from and to trade their loot. It'd be bad business for them to take in someone who's wanted, and much more profitable to turn you in at the next opportunity for a small profit.


It's also important to consider loansharks business.

Firstly loansharks expect not to collect all debts. They have a break-even point that is probably relatively low. This means that the odd guy skipping town is not a problem, because for everyone who does, there's another 10 people who stay because that's where they've always lived, that's where they've got family and friends. Of course the loanshark may make a token effort regardless -- catching a skipper from time to time is good for their reputation, and ensures not too many try -- but if once in a while they fail, it's unlikely to be a big problem for them.

Secondly, loansharks actually prefer never to collect a debt fully: it is in their best interest to have people only do "minimal payments" (ie, just the interests) so that a small loan keeps generating new money. Squeezing. This means that if you owe money, they'll be perfectly happy to take small payment after small payment, though they may threaten a bit to try and grab more of course. As a result, if you cannot repay them at all -- cannot even make the small payment -- how are you expecting to have enough money to buy a fake ID and pay for your transportation? Your chances are more than slim...

I'm not worrying for the loansharks; they'll do well.

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They check you out.

Do you have any grabbable assets like family members with useful organs, houses, jewelry, rare body parts? They'll prefer to give loans to people who have useful stuff they could take if they can't get the cash.

Do you have a history of moving, or ties to the community? They'll check you out to see if you have a history of skipping town. If you have a stable social media record that looks better than if you go from place to place. If you have family they can threaten that looks better.

They track you.

There's lots of ways. Bugs in your vehicle, implants in your body, contacts with corporations who will feed them information, or even following your social media accounts. This way if you do skip town they can come collect.

They bribe toll roads.

Corporations have a vested interest in keeping their wage slaves on sight as well, and will likely have barriers on major routes out, or locks in cars to prevent you fleeing. They can try and befriend such barriers and pay them a little bribe to make sure you can't leave without their permission.

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People who skip on loans will likely go into databases and, when they pop up, the loan shark will simply sell the loan to someone in the other city for them to collect. They get a chunk of their money back. The collection agency in another city will get to extract the money from their target (presumably, the same means that made it legal and feasible for the original loan shark to collect will be just as applicable in another city), and both can cite the case as an example of how, if you don't pay off your loans, you'll just die tired (because you'll be put into indentured servitude, on a treadmill generating electricity for the megacity) even if you run.

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    $\begingroup$ While it's a fun visual, nobody's going to bother putting prisoners on treadmills to generate power. They tested that idea at Newgate Prison a long time ago. Putting prisoners through utterly grueling 16+ hour days that were the equivalent of climbing a ridiculously tall mountain they determined that the average human can produce the same energy output per day as two pounds of coal. And this was back in the early days of steam when our coal burning was only like 15% efficient... Put the humans to doing things that need a human to do, we're not good at raw power generation. $\endgroup$
    – Perkins
    Jan 24 at 17:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Perkins: True. And now I'm imagining some city-state using their prisoner force to bypass CAPTCHA prompts on enemy systems. :-P $\endgroup$ Jan 24 at 17:26
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Credit is linked to your bio-signature

Basically no one deals in cash, especially for the purposes loans and issuing credit or even a digital wallet. Living off grid basically requires living outside the cities, so about the only other option is willing identity theft (that is sharing finances with someone else instead of using your own credidentity.

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So first you have to identify who the "loansharks" are, in order to know what they have access to and how low they're willing to stoop.

In the real world, the loanshark comes about due to usury laws. Basically the government has arbitrarily decreed that any interest rate over X is "unfair" and prohibited making loans under such terms.

Of course, as with any price ceiling, the result is shortages of the good or service in question. As a result, some people can only get a loan at a higher-than-allowed rate, and thus a black market ensues. This is where the stereotypical brutality comes from (well, that and the shark often being a bit on the dumb side with regard to good business...) Since making the loan was illegal, there's nobody to turn to for enforcement if the borrower refuses to pay it back. Violence becomes the only alternative.

So, how do you replicate this in a cyberpunk setting run by stereotypical, amoral big business that doesn't care about right or wrong, only about making a buck? They're not going to put arbitrary limits on interest rates. -- That doesn't make sense from a business point of view. It's just lost profit.

So the place left for a loanshark is the "criminal" underworld. The parts of society that the megacorps won't loan money to at any price because of conflicting interests. Presumably the borrowers have enough of a bounty on their head that they can't use the official banking system, but not enough to be worth the effort of hunting them down on the streets.

Now this is where it starts to tie into setting details that you haven't given us. You said there's not much official communication between cities, and the rural areas are "lawless". That latter is actually somewhat unlikely to happen. Humans are, for the most part, rather "lawful" creatures. It's part of our social instincts. So the rural areas are quite likely to have some level of law depending on their actual population. It just might seem lawless to cityfolk due to rules being different and/or the countryfolk being potentially hostile to the cities depending on what kind of relationship the megacorps have maintained with them. Mere lack of official security forces isn't sufficient to have the countryside devolve to mass banditry. If totally ignored like that the countryfolk will band together to protect their common interests and provide their own security (as has happened all over the world throughout history).

If you want a truly "lawless" rural area, more than merely ignoring it is required from the megacorps. They need to not only provide no security for established residents, but also suppress any attempt by those residents to provide their own security. Even this won't render the rural areas completely lawless, but if done aggressively and consistently it could easily reduce the countryside to a population of nomads who are aggressive toward all outsiders. (Note that this can make for an interesting side-plot depending on how you handle it.)

Now, this all is important because whatever the official relationship between cities, there's going to be profit to be made in moving goods between them. So if there are no official shipping channels for lower-class goods there's almost certainly going to be some kind of smuggling going on. Even the most aggressive between-city nomads are quickly going to realise that there's more profit to be had in the long-run from carrying goods back and forth than in trying to raid those shipments, so their hostility is unlikely to matter much unless it's full-on zealotry about killing everyone from the cities any way they can. (Again, interesting plot material.)

Smuggling, of course, is going to be one area of the criminal underworld where the loansharks are going to be plentiful. Lots of potential business ventures which obviously can't be funded via official channels. Which means that, even if there's no official lower-class communication between cities, the loansharks are going to have easy access to whatever unofficial channels there may be, and also be closely associated with the most likely means of traveling to another city for someone in the lower classes.

How formal all this is can vary as your setting demands. Potentially you have a full-on cabal running the "undercity" that is every bit as powerful, if not as overt, as the megacorps. Or it could be just a loose affiliation of gangs, or anywhere in between. The loansharks may well be part of a community of lower-class businessmen from which will spring the next generation of megacorps if they just play their cards right. Most cyberpunk stories don't cover enough timespan to get into that kind of thing. But basically what you've got with the typical big-corporation cyberpunk setting is futuristic feudalism. The big guys are currently on top, but they have no more guarantee of staying there than any of the kings or princes of history.

Regardless, if someone skips out on a loan by running to another city, the loanshark is going to pass off that person's description to whoever he can. Physical description, fingerprints, iris/retina scans, known aliases, known associates, whatever he's got. At the very least the loansharks in the various cities probably keep in touch with each other, so the borrower who skips out will have a hard time getting another loan if nothing else. Depending on your social structure it may also involve bringing the defaulter to the attention of the megacorp authorities. "Honor among thieves" ceases to apply as soon as you try to screw over another thief, so depending on the culture, the borrower who skips town could easily wind up with big chunks of "shady" history being shared with people who would take exception to it... "You want to know who broke into your lab two months ago? I may have a tip..."

And remember, the shark doesn't have to make sure nobody ever skips out on a loan. Running away just needs to be more expensive than paying it off for the majority of borrowers. And most of the time a loan of any significant size is going to have something put up for collateral. In which case the shark may not care particularly much. Just sell the collateral and move on to the next loan.

But, as with real life, if someone really wants to not pay back a loan to the point where they'll run away from everything and everyone they've ever known, there's not much for ways to stop it. Even in a heavily-connected world, the loanshark has to not only find the person, but expend resources on trying to get them to pay and, well, you can't get blood from a turnip. Defaults probably happen all the time -- that's why the rates are so high. The key, from a story perspective, is going to be to figure out why particular people don't want to go that route. Is the collateral too much to give up? Is the opportunity cost of being known as a welcher too high? Is there just not enough time? Are they well-known such that they can't really go elsewhere without being recognized?

In short, you just need to flesh out the rest of your setting, and the niche for the underworld loanshark will probably crop up somewhere. Just don't be surprised if it's a fairly small one, it's kind of a specialized trade. You're far more likely to have a big slew of pawn shops that will take goods of dubious provenance.

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You'll be marked

If you take a loan you have to wear an electronic bracelet. If you try to disable it you'll be immediately hunted. Changing a name is not enough, there are many ways to identify someone, especially in a connected world.

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Loan sharks are but a facade for megacorps

OK, for PR reasons Megacorp does not want to be seen as ruthless business killing people who will not pay. But it is a lucrative market! So why wouldn't they use different, local company? Different by name, and maybe even officially separate, but backed by, and earning money for Megacorp. Simple, efficient, inescapable. If you skip town, change your name, change appearance, then suddenly employee from Local Small Loans will visit you, telling you that hey, we just bought your debt from Minnie's Minuscule Loans from that city you used to live. That will be, in a very formal sense, true. But of course both LSL and MML are just faces of Megacorp.

Truly independent loan sharks will have your secret

Why would you seek truly independent loan shark? Why would you even know regular ones are dependent? Because you need to fund something Megacorp does not know about, cannot know about. Something so bold you can't even risk trying to take their money.

So what if you skip the town? Your loan shark might not know what you needed the money for, but he knows it was something you didn't want Megacorp to know about. He can just pass a memo to Megacorp, and you are toast. And you know it. So you will pay, or renegotiate, or do whatever to avoid being told about.

And who knows, maybe Megacorp will just pay for the info well enough to cover your debt? More power to your loan shark. Hard to lose money if you are willing to sell out! And why wouldn't he be?

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