GANGSTERS are preying on the financial fears of pensioners to take over their homes for drug dealing and racketeering, a major new report has discovered.

Organised criminals exploited concerns over the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ to effectively seize the spare rooms, sheds and garages of elderly tenants, sources told a major academic study.

Gangland figures have always needed bases in Scotland’s social housing schemes and have a long history of abusing vulnerable residents and attempting to corrupt concierges and housing workers to gain access to homes.

Now researchers - in a rare investigation of how Scotland’s communities are affected by organised crime - have uncovered new and devious tricks to control property.

READ MORE: In Quotes, Words from the front line on organised crime

A housing officer, cited anonymously in research, said: “Organised crime groups were identifying maybe elderly customers whose families had grown up and moved away, who knew that the whole bedroom tax agenda was on.

“They were basically saying to people you either move out to a smaller house or you pay the additional charge. They were saying ‘I will give you money and you will pay that into your rent account and we’ll use your room or we will use your shed, your garage, your lock-up and you’ll ask no questions’”.

In fact, the Scottish Government had put in place measures to mitigate cuts to housing benefits introduced by the Conservatives. However, the research suggests just how flexible criminals were in acting on the latest news.

The new report, called Community Experiences of Serious Organised Crime in Scotland, was carried out by experts at Glasgow, Stirling and other universities for the Scottish Government and under the auspices of the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research.

It is believed to be the first qualitative look at how gangsterism hits communities and took a year and a half to complete.

The bedroom tax scam helped underline one of its key findings: that fighting crime cannot be left to the police along. Housing officers, for example, are often on the front line with more regular contact with criminals and their victims than law enforcement.

HeraldScotland: HIGH ON THE LIST: Castlemilk is one of the areas where Glasgow Housing Association's homes could be handed over to local control under second stage transfer.

Glasgow

Some big social landlords, such as Glasgow Housing Association, are already plugged in to the fight with drug dealing, gun-running and human trafficking with both specialist and non-specialist housing officers trained to look for the tell-tale footprints of organised crime.

One housing officer told the researchers his or her colleagues had to understand they may be “ “that golden thread in somebody’s life.”

READ MORE: Life of crime mapped out: Gangs target six-year-olds to deal drugs

He added: “Police might dip in and out your life or they might not – education, social work, social care may or may not but whilst you’re living in social housing you will have that common relationship and it is just about being aware and signposting.”

HeraldScotland:

Site of gangland related shooting, Glasgow

Another housing officer stressed criminals were always on the look-out for vulnerable tenants. He or she said: If they live in the area they know who they can target… They know exactly what they’re doing. They’ll also then know in terms of some of our customer groups who have got severe issues with alcohol or drug addictions and on mental health issues and they play on that.”

The research - to be unveiled at a meeting of Scotland’s Serious and Organised crime task force today - underlined that housing was far from always joined up with policing.

It concluded: “Housing services in particular were found to be a key source of local intelligence, and schools a key point of intervention, but with little internal coordination.

“This disconnect was exacerbated in some cases by the removal of key service offices, including police stations and social work offices, from the local area; resulting in a weakening of community-level knowledge.”

The researchers want to put community development at the heart of the fight with organised crime, a scourge that is both the cause of - and a symptom of - poverty

They also stressed the importance of schools - themselves dealing with gangland issues like the sale of drugs over social media - in identifying young people vulnerable to the next victims - or foot soldiers - of criminals.

And police, they said, need to understand some tactics, such as repeated stop and search, could backfire.

Alistair Fraser: Why Scotland needs to change the conversation on organised crime

Scotland’s response to organised crime has already won international attention. Paul Carberry, of Action for Children, a member of the organised crime task force, stressed the country already understood it could not “arrest itself” out of the problem.

HeraldScotland:

Alistair Fraser

However, researcher Alistair Fraser of Glasgow University said the country still had much to do to change its conversation about the issue. A new conversation was needed on whether gangsterism was glamourised. He said: “Organised crime doesn’t exist as a secretive subculture, hidden from view, but is stitched into the fabric of our communities.

The academics even found one witness who cited a roadside shrine to a fallen criminal made up of 1000 empty bottles of Buckfast.