Long wait for scam victims
Finally, after going on the lam for nine months, former Pagadian City Mayor Samuel Co and his wife, Priscilla, were arrested by agents of the National Bureau of Investigation in Taguig City to stand trial for syndicated estafa.
They are accused of involvement in a P12-billion Ponzi investment scam allegedly perpetrated by Aman Futures Group that duped about 15,000 investors from the Visayas and Mindanao.
Dubbed the biggest ever scam to hit the country, its suspected mastermind, Manuel Amalillo, has so far evaded prosecution by fleeing to Malaysia.
Although charges were quickly filed against him when his caper was exposed, he has avoided extradition to the Philippines by pleading guilty to the crime of “possession of a fraudulent passport” in a Malaysian court that sentenced him to two years imprisonment.
There are reports that a high ranking government official in Sabah, reputedly his close relative, facilitated his indictment, plea of guilt and conviction.
Assuming his prison term runs its full course, he will be free by February 2015. Whether or not the Malaysian government would later allow his extradition to be tried here is a big question mark.
He has reportedly been sued by some Malaysians who got burned in the scam and are demanding that he stay put until the cases against him are resolved.
Co and his wife may be considered the “big fish” among several people now facing trial for fraud charges, most of whom are former executives of the companies that Amalillo supposedly used as fronts for his Ponzi scheme.
The latter claim that their names were included in the company’s papers without their knowledge or consent, and that they signed receipts and other financial documents upon his instructions.
They describe themselves as scam victims too, rather than co-conspirators in defrauding unwary investors of their hard earned money.
Although Co and his wife have no formal links with Amalillo’s companies, they were included in the charge sheet because they allegedly committed certain acts that led investors to believe the investment project was legitimate when they knew very well it was illegal.
These acts include, among others, issuing a temporary business permit to Amalillo before all required documents have been submitted (and were never submitted), and imposing a tax on the investments to make it appear his business was lawful.
By way of defense, Co and his wife assert that the complaints against them are politically motivated and pointed to their political rivals as the instigators.
The arrest of Co and his wife is cold comfort to the people who were hoodwinked into participating in a scheme that promised unbelievably high returns on their investments.
Considering the snail pace of justice in our country, it would take at least another 10 years before the charges filed in connection with the Aman Futures scam are resolved with finality.
By that time, most of the victims would either be dead, physically debilitated or emotionally devastated.
And even if the accused are found guilty, the prospects of the victims’ recovering part of their investments are nil.
True, the Court of Appeals has, upon the application of the Anti-Money Laundering Council, issued a “freeze order” on some 141 bank accounts of Aman Futures’ officers and agents.
The problem is, the order came two months after the scam unraveled. The time lag, no doubt, gave the bank account owners the opportunity to withdraw their proceeds and stash them elsewhere to prevent the AMLC from getting hold of them.
Besides, a favorable ruling in favor of the victims does not automatically give them the right to share in whatever amounts that may still be left in the bank accounts.
The court would still have to decide whether those funds should remain in their owners’ hands, or be forfeited in favor of the government or the victims.
The hand wringing, I-told-you-so and finger pointing that ensued after the Ponzi scheme was exposed are all water under the bridge.
No amount of curses or threats of legal action can give redress and comfort to the scam victims who will suffer the consequences of their unfortunate action for the rest of their lives.
Although public awareness has been raised about machinations that exploit some people’s desire (read: greed) to amass quick profits, the government agencies tasked with preventing a repeat of the Aman Futures caper should not let their guard down.
The con artists are just lying low, waiting for the opportunity to strike again when the authorities’ attention is focused elsewhere and the investment accounts available to people with money to spare offer low or unattractive rates.
It is not enough that warnings about investment scams or other similar activities are posted on the websites of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, Insurance Commission and other regulatory agencies.
Neither should these offices think that sending press releases to broadsheets or putting up advertisements would be sufficient to put on alert possible victims of con artists.
Although websites are open to anybody who has access to the Internet, the people who read them are mostly those who regularly do business with the government agencies concerned.
The targets of financial snake charmers—retirees, pensioners, middle income families and small time businessmen—seldom have the means or ability to access the Internet to browse through those websites.
It is foolhardy to think that newspapers can fill the information gap because most of them are based in the urban areas and their penetration level in households that attract scammers is limited.
The information drive about investment scams must be made in a language known to their prospective victims and, most importantly, should get to them in a timely manner.
Anything short would not make Aman Futures a thing of the past.
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