Romania's get-rich-quick pyramid fails

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The Independent Online
A MONEY-MAKING pyramid scheme in which millions of Romanians once entrusted their savings was formally closed down yesterday, some eight months after it first began faltering on payments.

Ion Stoica, the elusive founder of the self-styled 'Caritas' scheme, blamed its collapse on the press - 'a force which hit us like a beast' - and on repeated allegations that it was linked to ultra-nationalist politicians. He promised, however, that most depositors would get their money back.

'This (pyramid) system worked and would have gone on working had it not been for the unfortunate role played by the press,' Mr Stoica said in an open letter to national newspapers. 'I will now do all I can to close the system so that each person will be satisfied.'

That will be easier said than done. Some 4 million Romanians are estimated to have invested pounds 700m in the Caritas project, which promised an eight-fold return on deposits after just three months. Even if Mr Stoica is able to give them their money back, few will be satisfied. Romania's gypsy community has threatened to lynch him if he fails to deliver on his 'get rich quick' assurances.

When Caritas was launched in June 1992 it struck a chord for many people. The harsh economic realities of post-Communism were beginning to bite: inflation was into three digits and salaries averaged a meagre pounds 40 a month. Thousands flocked to the Caritas headquarters in the Transylvanian city of Cluj to stake their claim.

'Of course logically the scheme - like all pyramid schemes - had to fail and the collapse was only a question of time,' said a Western source in Bucharest. Many early investors in Cluj made a killing and the city experienced an unprecedented boom. There was speculation, however, that much of the Caritas money had been laundered and that profits were being channelled into the coffers of the Cluj-based ultra-nationalist Romanian National Unity Party, whose leader, Gheorghe Funar, publicly backed the scheme.

When things were going well, Mr Funar and Mr Stoica frequently appeared together to promise that it would make Cluj one of the wealthiest cities in Europe. When the first signs of problems with payments appeared last autumn, however, Mr Funar began to distance himself from Caritas. Recently, he even described it as 'a spin-off of the chaotic economic changes in Romania'.