Buyer beware: the stamps that fooled a nation

It seemed like a route to riches for tens of thousands of collectors. But the venture wasn't worth the little pieces of paper it was printed on. Elizabeth Nash reports from Madrid
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The Independent Online

That's what hundreds of thousands of Spaniards thought when they entrusted their savings - sometimes all they had - to two well-established stamp-dealing firms, Afinsa and Forum Filatelico. Savers were persuaded to buy stamps with the promise they would increase in value, and were offered between 6 per cent and 12 per cent return, far more than the rate offered by banks. Around 350,000 savers, mostly recruited by word of mouth from friends and family, contributed about €5bn over more than 20 years. Some contributed small sums each month, others handed over their entire pension pot.

Then suddenly last Tuesday, this gentle pastime lost its innocence. Police raided and shut down the two giants of the stamp-dealing world on suspicion of fraud, tax evasion, embezzlement and money laundering; and savers realised, aghast, that they risked losing everything.

"My dream is broken. I am 45 and have a five-year-old son. Now I have nothing. I put in €60,000 - not much, but for me it was a great fortune. My indignation knows no limits," one investor, Maria Cruz Ingles, said.

"I can't tell you my real name because my father would have a heart attack if he found out," said "Jaime", 55, one of hundreds of investors who besieged an office of Forum Filatelico in Barcelona this week. "The income was to pay for a care home for my parents in their old age." Jaime had invested €220,000.

In Madrid, desperate and bewildered savers blocked the traffic in protest when staff at the headquarters of Forum Filatelico refused to let them withdraw their savings. "I've been frightened for the past two months," Encarnacion Cortes, 53, said. "I came to withdraw my money but they raised a thousand obstacles. They said the investment would appreciate, so very reluctantly I left it."

State prosecutors believe the operation amounts to a pyramid-selling scam, when high returns for early investors are financed with money brought by new savers enticed into the scheme. Eventually the promised outlay spirals out of all proportion to the assets, in this case stamps, the whole thing collapses and no one gets their money back.

A spokesman for the police said: "Potential investors were offered high returns from the purchase and management of a stamp fund that was apparently made up of overvalued - or even fake - stamps and whose returns did not apparently come from the fund but from money received from new clients."

Laura (not her real name) was among those who denounced Forum Filatelico at the police station in Madrid nearest to the company's headquarters. She had just lost her job and was worried about the €8,000 she'd spent on stamps in the past two years. But she was more worried about the health of her mother:

"My mother was the first person in our family to invest," Laura said. "She was so sure that everything was above board and a good business that she recommended it to all her friends and relations." Laura's mother developed close relations with the company. "She took courses to become an agent and set out to recruit people to the scheme. Now since the news of the suspected fraud her clients never stop ringing, demanding information. She can't do anything; she's just another victim. But she feels like a fraudster."

Spaniards have been scared off by the swooping stock markets, dodgy pension plans and speculative property deals of recent years, and flocked to a business based on stamps, which by their nature seemed to enjoy official endorsement. Stamp and coin collecting has been popular in Spain for decades, and parks and squares throughout the country are taken over at weekends by enthusiasts exchanging their wares.

Many reacted to the news that their companies faced collapse with disbelief, followed frequently by shame at having been tricked by false promises. "They sold it very well," Jose Bodalo, 30, reflected bitterly. "They assured me the investment was guaranteed and my money was safe. I was persuaded more by sentiment than sense. But I've lost €21,000, everything I had."

Some hard-earned savings may have gone into the cache buried in the grounds of the property belonging to Francisco Guijarro, one of the nine people detained this week. Police who raided Mr Guijarro's sprawling villa set amid lawns and cypresses in Madrid's luxury suburb of La Moraleja had examined his subterranean discotheque and were about to leave when one officer commented on the smell of fresh plaster. On closer investigation they found a recently closed-up cave stuffed with bags containing €10m in €500 notes. Police estimate the seizure to be the largest they had ever carried out in Spain.

They also found sheets of forged stamps, paintings by renowned contemporary artists, and luxury cars, including a Lamborghini. Investigators reckon some of the stamps were overvalued by up to 900 per cent, and would make on the open market only a fraction of what savers had paid.

One disillusioned punter, who had paid €1,000 for stamps he kept at home, tried to sell them at auction when he needed money. "The auction house said they'd take the stamps but reckoned they'd make less than €100," he said.

"I was never particularly interested in stamps," Javier Molinera, a bar-owner in Madrid who has been investing in the Forum Filatelico for 23 years, said. "But I listened to a friend and joined in because it sounded a good investment."

Mr Molinera was offered the option of taking his stamp collections home but, fearful of losing them, he did what most savers did and left them in the company's vaults. "They guaranteed that they would buy back all the stamps you'd bought at their cost price, in addition all the income they'd paid," he said.

Angel Quesada, 72, heard from a friend that the Forum might provide a good pension. He invested €54,000, his life savings, in stamp collections offered by the company. Every month they paid him €200.

Mr Quesada said: "I've been a building worker all my life and over the years I set up a small business. I worked hard to bring up my four children, and I'd saved this money for my retirement." He was queuing to complain to the police.

Those affected are overwhelmingly small savers, mostly elderly, tempted by promised high returns, who brought family and friends into the scheme when they began to reap the benefits. Some, like Gabriel Calderon, who is retired, didn't scrutinise the small print when he invested €51,000 over 10 years, nor investigate the value of the stamps he bought.

"I started with a bond of five years and it went well so I extended it for another four years," he said. "They gave me around 6 per cent interest and it always arrived on time. This is a terrible surprise. I didn't even look at the list of stamps they sent me because it was very long."

He, like many others, now blames himself for being gullible, but criticises the authorities for apparently washing their hands of responsibility and leaving hundreds of thousands in the lurch.

So how did the tranquil backwater of tweezers, tissue-paper, hinges and special issues balloon into potentially the biggest scandal ever experienced in Spain, a country that has been no stranger to financial skulduggery?

Stamps, for all their small-time image, are big business. Forum Filatelico, founded in 1980, is a pioneer in promoting stamp-collecting as investment and has clocked up spectacular results in recent years. In 2004 the company made nearly €90m, a third more than the previous year.

Results for 2005 were expected to be even higher. Forum has 150 branches, 250,000 clients, 300 employees and 1,600 agents.

Its main rival is Afinsa, a world leader in stamp- and coin-dealing, founded in 1980 by a Portuguese resident in Spain, Albertino de Figuereido, 75. Mr Figuereido conceived the idea after a Spanish philatelist friend advised him to buy stamps with money inherited from his father in Portugal. That way he could bring his substantial inheritance across the frontier to Spain without paying tax. He loaded his old Ford with stamps and drove to Madrid, where his friend bought them for twice what he'd paid.

Afinsa, in which Mr Figuereido still enjoys a majority shareholding, has 143,000 investors, and recorded profits of €51m in 2004. The company recently announced ambitious plans to expand throughout Europe, North America and Asia.

Professional stamp collectors, and weekend aficionados with the magnifying glass, disapprove of both companies because of their single-minded focus on stamps purely as investment. Spain's National Association of Coin and Stamp Businesses (to which neither company belongs) insisted stamps were principally a cultural artefact, and hoped that a traditional trade would not be damaged "by something that has nothing to do with stamp-collecting".

The two companies are accused of buying stamps cheaply - not difficult as they virtually control the market - then selling them at wildly inflated prices to investors who never checked their true value, making up to 1,000 per cent mark-up.

Investigators believe both companies tried to conceal their purchases from the tax inspector by declaring their suppliers to be outside Spain (which in some cases they were) thereby whisking huge profits away from Spanish scrutiny. The public prosecutor has accused Afinsa of being "absolutely insolvent", which the company denies. Forum Filatelico is accused of being "clearly bankrupt" with a €2.4bn black hole in its accounts.

The company admits that it would go under if it had to pay all its creditors at once "like any bank", but promises to meet its commitments.

Spain's Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, pleaded this week for "calm and confidence" in response to the suspected fraud and promised to protect investors' "rights and interests". But alarm spread when the Finance Ministry and the Bank of Spain made clear that these kinds of investments in stamps were not covered by a government-backed insurance plan.

This means that if those 350,000 families have been defrauded of their hopes, their savings, in some cases their livelihoods, they stand to receive no compensation. Small wonder that thousands who believe they are victims of a bare-faced swindle are banding together nationwide, in the street, in queues at the police station and on the internet, to demand their money back.

Regular street demonstrations are planned outside company offices. Blogs are proliferating to plan the next steps. Consumers Associations, until now a pale shadow of their British equivalents, have been swamped by an avalanche of appeals by those desperate to know, and exercise, their rights. Local pressure groups are springing up in regions hit by the scare, including Galicia, Valencia, Catalonia and the Balearic Islands, and some regional authorities have installed helplines.

These small investors and careful savers are a cross section of ordinary Spaniards, dispersed - now united in misfortune - across the country. Mostly elderly folk who have dedicated their lives to the virtues of thrift and planning for their future, persuaded by the word of a friend rather than a faceless institution, they form the backbone of modern Spain. These victims, traumatised with shock and disbelief when the scandal first broke, are now starting to mobilise - and they are unlikely to go home quietly.