Countdown To The Euro: View from Portugal

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The Independent Online
SOME PORTUGUESE are exploiting the launch of the euro on 1 January to swindle countryfolk of hard-earned savings. Smooth-talking "bankers" convince victims to hand over escudos they say are worthless, offering to swap them for euros. Earlier this month, in the latest of several incidents, two men persuaded an 82-year-old to part with 190,000 escudos (pounds 660).

Cash in hand, the swindlers disappeared. It's a modern twist on an old scam in which dodgy "priests" urged villagers to hand over jewels and silverware to be "blessed" by a visiting cardinal.

The fraud reflects how Portugal's preparation for the euro is focused on banks and big companies rather than the average Joao. "The euro is clearly defined for banks, securities and big companies, but not for small companies or the consumer," says Manuel Fidalgo of the Portuguese consumers' association, DeCo. "Our voice has not been represented, and we feel the crucial task of winning over public opinion has been neglected."

The Bank of Portugal frowns on traders' attempts to mark prices in both escudos and euros.

But the Portuguese, traditionally open to the wider world, are likely to cope well. The country has 10 million tourists a year, and even small shops and cafes are at home juggling currencies and languages. "Our savings banks already work in multi-currencies," says Nuno Jonet, spokesman at the Bank of Portugal. "We are flexible."

DeCo agrees. "We Portuguese are an easy-going nation, and we think we'll get used to the euro like we get used to everything," Mr Fidalgo says. "But consumers must be alert, and demand clear, precise and honest information, to protect us from sneaky hidden charges and fraudulent tricksters."