Scammer index suggests that the times are getting better

The appearance of English-speaking beggars this week may be a sign that the economy is recuperating.

For the last several years, San José has not hosted the scammers, pickpockets and assorted bad sorts of years past.

A case in point is the Viper Lady, who was no lady. This was the woman who confided to expats that she admired them from afar and was lonely because the day was her birthday. And she would ask to share a drink in a dark bistro. The poor expat victim would awaken nearly naked in some lot hours later with only a dim memory that he happily surrendered his credit card PIN number.

The question of whether the Viper Lady really was a woman or a cleverly disguised male never has been answered. She blew town as the stock market plunged.

There is a certain nostalgia for the high-living days around the turn of the century. A lot of the activity was keyed to the Villalobos high interest borrowing operation that went kaput in 2002. The Villalobos brothers paid about 3 percent in cash a month on deposits of $10,000 or more.

A Costa Rican court said that the operation was a ponzi scheme when it convicted Oswaldo Villalobos of aggravated fraud. But not everyone is sure.

What is sure is that plenty of expats made extravagant use of the Villalobos income. An investment of $1 million would generate $30,000 a month, payable in cash in a brown envelope without any messy Internal Revenue Service forms. And individual investors had up to $16 million placed with the Villalobos Brothers.

That kind of money on the street attracted all kinds of criminal types. A lot of U.S. and Canadian expats moved here to keep track of their money and lived a rich lifestyle. Others spent their monthly winnings in a couple of boozy weeks at the Del Rey Hotel and other exciting nightspots.

Street crimes against expats seem to have declined in direct proportion to the financial well being of Villalobos investors.

This year will mark a decade from when Luis Enrique Villalobos had a fax sent to A.M. Costa Rica announcing that he was closing down his business. He still is a fugitive, but some diehards hope he will take advantage of the statute of limitations and return to pay them off. Hope springs eternal.

Although Luis Enrique styled himself as a religious man, he must have had second thoughts about the culture he was creating. Those who remember this period in San José can agree that for many the time was one continual party. Investors rode in limos, lived in posh surroundings and accumulated many, many friends.

The lifestyle was not only in San José. Pockets of expats all over the country shared in the Villalobos regular monthly stipends. A group near San Isidro de El General, for example, used to designate one of their number to take a bus to San José at the beginning of each month to collect the envelopes.

There were similar operators all providing monthly cash flow
to hundreds of expats. There was Luis Milanes, who seems to have successfully bought his way out of a prison term this year. There was this fund and that fund. And there was Roy Taylor who operated something called The Vault, which promoted a series of real and imagined investment opportunities. Taylor killed himself in his offices on the downtown pedestrian boulevard when investigators moved in June 2003. A check of his books showed that he, too, invested with the Villalobos Brothers.

Those who fared the best were those who invested in the Villalobos through a licensed U.S. stockbroker. Several accompanied their customers to San Pedro to make deposits. Presumably they received some kind of commission. When the Villalobos bubble burst, some of the customers contacted the brokers’ employers, major New York firms. The companies, recognizing the idiocy of their employees making deals with unlicensed and unregistered operations, quickly wrote checks to the victims.

The economic hit caused by the collapse of the Villalobos operation was masked by the strength of the real estate market at the time. Hundreds of North Americans were shipping their pension funds, life savings and second mortgage money to Costa Rica to buy a dream. Some made out very well. Others fell in with the brothers and sisters of the Viper Lady. There were plenty of shaky projects that eventually went bust.

Some purchasers still are trying to get some satisfaction in courts here and in the United States.

A new story Wednesday reported on the exploits of some slick, English-speaking beggar types who seem to home in on expats. They have been absent from the city for several years. But they have returned. That may be a good economic sign.

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