"Easy money" fever causes trouble in Colombia

( dpa ) - Jaime - who will not reveal his last name because he feels ashamed of his great naivety - is furious that he queued up for ages in Bogota to have a policeman "steal" the money he had saved for years with great effort.

Carlos - whose feeling of guilt show in his comments - admits that greed led him to lose all the money he had gathered to launch a business.

The two men, who do not know one another, are among hundreds of people who in recent days have queued up in Bogota and other Colombian cities to demand the return of the money they gave to illegal financial agents who promise fabulous interest rates, far above those of formal banking.

The problem came to light in recent days, but it is growing fast and the authorities are worried: behind every single victim of the scam there is a human tragedy that leaves a family bankrupt.

The "pyramid" system has been known for years in Colombia, although it commands particular attention now given the high number of people who have been duped.

Jaime explained that he turned to one of the agents following a recommendation from a friend. He admitted he did not hesitate for a second before handing over 3.3 million pesos (about 1,700 dollars), because the person he dealt with promised to return the cash, with earnings of up to 400 per cent, within "three to ten days."

The man, aged around 40, almost fainted when he returned for his money and found many people who were denouncing the breach of the commitment by a "ghost" firm that set up shop at a home in Bogota.

The generous earnings vanished, and worst of all, so did the original amount.

The story is identical for hundreds of people who were complaining before houses in Bogota, Bucaramanga, Neiva, Villavicencio and smaller towns. The buildings were left empty, and those who gathered the funds had disappeared.

On Tuesday in Bogota, angry victims managed to corner Bogota two women and one man who could not explain what had happened. The authorities arrested the suspects, and it became known later that one of them was a police officer assigned to provide security at the country's Vice President.

Police bosses, municipal officials and media reports have insisted in their warnings about the high risk of investing in "pirate" offices that raise money.

However, it strikes the eye that in some places where people are still returning cash with interest, long lines still form, as people hand in their money in the hope of receiving good returns in just days.

Banking Association President Maria Mercedes Cuellar said people have to understand that it is an informal system in which those who do not measure the risk are caught after getting excited over the earnings of those at the top of the "pyramid."

The "easy money" fever also appears in another form.

Medium-sized towns and small villages have seen thousands of their residents stay up late to wait for an elusive character who "hands out money."

The phenomenon has already happened in Villavicencio and Zipaquira, where many say they have seen a black man driving through the streets in a luxury vehicle during the night to hand out wads of bank notes with as much as 4 million pesos (2,100 dollars). Dismissed as an "urban myth" by the media, believers say the money belongs to a drug baron who died and left it to the people as an inheritance, or to a criminal who prefers to give away everything he has amassed before being captured by police.

An informal coffee vendor in Villavicencio has her own hypothesis.

"It is the devil. That is why they cannot catch him and why no one can write down the car's licence plates. Besides, they say he gives out the money and from one moment to the next no one knows where the van is. It disappears," the woman said.

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