‘Ever been scammed?’

by JEREMAIAH M. OPINIANO
www.ofwjournalism.net


Editor’s note: Victim requested anonymity in exchange for baring her story.

SOMEWHERE IN LUZON ISLAND––OVERSEAS worker’s wife Virginia Recuerda’s mind wanders to a Citibank check in her drawer every time a television show on scams began airing at Channel 11 recently.

That check for US$3,000 and the show remind her of how trust in other people could lead to financial disaster.

It’s exactly three years ago that Recuerda got that check–equivalent to three months her husband’s salary overseas–which she can’t transform into hard cash due to a scam known as Ponzi.

“See this? This check is our money,” Recuerda told the OFW Journalism Consortium Inc. Her gaze measured, Recuerda doesn’t allow the check to leave her hands.

The check, a contract from a local holdings company, and a handwritten acknowledgment receipt add on to the memory of how she fell for an investment scheme in 2002.

Television actor Leo Martinez’s gaze and voice narrating the cases of scams that clutched Filipino investors like Recuerda only refresh her regrets of believing a certain Maridina Dizon that her US$4,000 investment could earn four percent.

“I found her [Maridina] trustworthy since her husband’s an executive of a bank,” Recuerda recalls.

“She was also very articulate and can explain things really well.”

Recuerda said it was her friend who Maridina also lured for investment that she was introduced to Dizon who represented Logaton Holdings Inc.

Logaton, it was revealed after several dinners and *bleep*tail parties where Maridina brought her, acted as an agent of Multinational Telecommunications Investors Corp. or MultiTel.

A year after Recuerda forked over to Dizon her money in a tête-à-tête at a fastfood chain, MultiTel’s founder Rosario Baladjay was arrested in Mangaldan, Pangasinan for complaints of estafa.

It was only through the television that Recuerda confirmed something amiss would happen to her investment.

My heart thumped like a train when I saw Baladjay on television, she said.

“I almost broke down with nervousness; like the many retirees and senior citizens that also fell for the scheme.”


Natural prey

WITH their substantial disposable income, potentials for savings and some pundits say a desire to return home for good, OFWs are a natural target for legitimate businesses and illegal money-making ventures.

The Securities and Exchange Commission says most of these ventures seduce investors with the promise of extremely high returns that range from 4 percent to 29 percent.

Lawyer Lalaine Monserate of the SEC’s Compliance and Enforcement Division explained Ponzi schemes, for example, also pay investors “exceptional returns from the deposits of a growing number of new investors.”

While Recuerda and her friend Lilian were supposed to get 4-percent interest for their investment, Dizon was to get seven percent every time she brought in third-party investors like them.

Monserate said the Ponzi scheme is similar to pyramiding, which rewards participants for inducing other people to join, and which focus is primarily on the exchange of money for recruitment, and not for the selling of products such as health supplements, food and shoes.

Aside from the dangled promising returns, the factor of trust comes in when a scam operator brings along or introduced to the victim by a confidant.

In Recuerda’s case, it was her friend Lilian who, she said, attested to the viability of the investment.

As a semblance of formality, documents are presented, like the acknowledgment receipt that Dizon gave to Recuerda when she paid US$1,000 in 2002 “for placement at MultiTel.”

With the promise of high returns and the confidence in her friend, Recuerda relented and accepted the receipt handwritten only by Dizon.

“See here, she even wrote the serial numbers of the dollar bills I gave her,” Recuerda said as her fingers traced the yellowing paper.

The receipt was later replaced by a peach-colored paper bearing a contract for the investment between Logaton, Recuerda and her husband Felipe.


Money walks

EVERY month since then, Dizon would invite Recuerda to dinners catered by MultiTel owner Baladjay.

“She [Baladjay] would even personally call to invite us to prove that she was telling the truth [about the viability of the investment].”

Dizon and Baladjay, hence, acted as a tag-team, with the former assuring Recuerda and other investors they could get their money back with interest.

“I believed in them so much I planned to add US$2,000 more in my investment,” Recuerda said.

That time she has already earned half of the US$4,000 she gave Dizon.

But after Felipe returned to his work abroad in 2003, unsolicited advice against hiking that investment poured in, especially from my in-laws and other friends, she said.

Her worries grew when on March 12 that year, news reports cited Baladjay was arrested in view of regulators’ clamp down on MultiTel and other suspected Ponzi and pyramid schemes.

With the US$3,000 Citibank check and a contract nestled in her handbag, Recuerda said she immediately went to Logaton’s Makati City office, a two-hour drive from her house.

What she found there was a room bare of furniture; not even a paper clip on the floor.

The Logaton office was gone.

Dizon, meanwhile, became difficult to contact after she told Recuerda to exchange the check for cash after she comes home from the United States for her child’s enrolment.

“She was still confident and reassuring,” Recuerda recalled.

Later, Recuerda was told by fellow MultiTel investors that Dizon couldn’t return to the Philippines because her name was “blacklisted” by US immigration and law enforcement officials.

Recuerda doesn’t know if Dizon was able to slip past authorities after two years.

She may still be hiding somewhere in the US with our money, Recuerda can only surmise.

However, the real money may still be with Baladjay and husband Saturnino, whose P10-billion worth of assets the Supreme Court ruled in May this year to remain frozen, throwing out a Court of Appeals decision to lift the freezing of these assets.


Haul

SOME P25 billion to 90 billion were lost to these schemes, SEC officials said, affecting a low estimate of 250,000 Filipinos and a high estimate of a million Filipinos who include overseas workers, class A, B, and C sectors, and government and private sector employees and retirees.

Up to 4,000 people, mostly Filipinos, in the United Arab Emirates and Oman lost US$2 million to the Manila-based PowerHomes Unlimited, says a 2003 report by Gulf News. An appeals court in Manila said PowerHomes had no real product to sell outright and earns primarily through recruitment. The document tagged this scheme as “pyramiding”.

Recuerda said her husband’s fellow worker lost half a million pesos to this type of scam.

In MultiTel’s case, complainants claim they lost P625 million in principal investment and P125-million in interest payments.

SEC’s June 1 website showed it issued cease and desist orders against 48 companies that include MultiTel, its sister company MultiTel Investment Holdings, PowerHomes, and the Tibayan Group of Companies for conducting “fraudulent investment schemes.”

Filipinos abroad and at home should always check the websites of SEC and the trade and industry department for announcements and steps to elude these investment schemes, said SEC director Hubert Dominic Guevara.

Guevara also observed that even OFWs who fell prey to these investment schemes “don’t conduct due diligence on the companies that approached them”.

“They shouldn’t wait for the time they are not earning anything before they lodge in complaints.”

“The first line of defense is the people themselves as we in the SEC can only do so much as a regulator,” he added.

Guevara’s advice came late for Recuerda.

Still she says she has learned her lesson: “I focus on my work and my son who’s preparing for a board examination as a licensed professional”.

Her husband, however, remains working abroad, the only sad twist on their aim to double their savings.

But Recuerda said the decision to pour money into the MultiTel investment was a conjugal decision and responsibility she and Felipe shares.

“Money has never been an issue between my husband and I.”

While our trust in people outside our family of three has eroded, our trust in hard work through good investment hasn’t, she adds.

Recuerda points to her son as the best investment they have right now.

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OFW Journalism Consortium Inc. in partnership with the Ateneo de Manila University-Economic Policy Reform and Advocacy (EPRA) consortium