The P500-million ‘Birkin scam,’ or how a woman’s obsession led to crime
The names have been changed pending the filing of case in court.
Nate met Sheila (not their real names) in 2004 through his friend Jack, who owns an art gallery. Nate is the gallery director in a Manila university owned by his family. A former flight attendant who had taken a break from work when she married and had children, Sheila had just started working at Jack’s gallery.
Nate and Sheila quickly became friends. She was a very simple girl, he recalls in our interview, and even as she had no experience in the art scene, Sheila showed a knack for sales so that Jack began to trust her. Jack made her industrial partner, and later, managing director, widening her social network in the moneyed, art connoisseur set.
“When we first met, Nine West or Cole Haan were already expensive for her,” Nate says. “When she started hanging out with people from the art scene and several of her former flight-attendant friends who had married rich, that all began to change.”
He adds, “Louis Vuitton, she had a lot of those. Then this Birkin thing came about…”
Nate and Sheila’s friendship developed into a business relationship. It all started smooth and harmless. Nate would travel to Europe with his partner Tom, and Sheila would ask him to buy a few designer bags to sell her “clients.”
“At times, she said the orders would be three Chanels, five Goyards, one Hermes… All of these I would finance,” Nate says. “I made money by keeping the tax refund, and for each bag, depending on the price, I would get P10,000 to P25,000 each as carrier’s fee. I did that for almost 2½ years.”
Sheila made good on her word. “I enjoyed doing it,” says Nate. “With that alone, each of my flights to Europe was already paid for. And I was also into bags. I even earned points on my credit card.”
Then he quickly adds, “Let me be clear that I was only doing it for fun. I only did it on the side, I didn’t travel to Europe just to buy bags for her.”
It was about the time Hermes opened its first boutique here that things became complicated.
Hermes Birkin was the one bag everyone lusted after. But even if you had P500,000 lying around, which was the estimated cost of the cheapest Birkin in Greenbelt, the boutique couldn’t stock up by the dozens. If you wanted one quick, you had to look elsewhere.
“She asked if I wanted to invest in the Birkins,” Nate recalls.
The deal went this way: Sheila would ask an investor to pull in P450,000. In Europe, the cheapest Birkin costs shy of P400,000. She would sell the purse for P550,000. It was a plausible proposition: Some women would rather pay the extra P50,000 (over the Manila price tag) than travel to Europe to buy a purse.
Of the total sales, P50,000 would go to the carrier who buys the bag in Europe or elsewhere, P50,000 to Sheila as middle person, and P50,000 to the investor. In short, an investor’s P450,000 becomes P500,000 in just a month, or a profit of 11 percent—a deal even the top banks couldn’t give.
This time, Nate was a mere investor, not a buyer/carrier.
“We did that for about six times,” Nate says. On the seventh time, Nate asked his nephew if he wanted to invest as well. The nephew said yes and, as usual, all parties involved laughed all the way to the bank.
“I never saw the Birkins; she just showed me photos on her phone,” Nate says. It didn’t matter. She paid him on schedule. Business was good.
Then came February this year. Nate was readying for another Europe trip when Sheila called to ask if he had
P2 million. It was for a crocodile Birkin, she said, which would cost that much. She was sure she could sell the bag the following week. Expected profit was a cool P200,000.
“In a pyramid scam, this tactic doesn’t make you instantly rich, it makes you buy time,” Tom, Nate’s partner, points out. “If I ask P2 million from you, I’ll use it to temporarily make good with everybody.”
Looking back, Nate believes the
P2 million was intended to pay off checks issued investors that were due for payment. At the time, he didn’t suspect yet that anything was amiss.
Again, Nate turned to his nephew for P500,000 with a promised profit of P50,000. “My nephew wanted to invest the entire P2 million but good thing I told him no.”
Nate met with Sheila a few days later, on Feb. 13, in a friend’s house, where she handed him the check for the investment plus profit, dated Feb. 17.
“She looked different,” Nate says on hindsight. “She had no makeup on, no jewelry. She looked gaunt and sick. I didn’t know then that her financial woes were already piling up.”
On Feb. 15, a Wednesday, Sheila called Nate to say she wasn’t able to deposit the check payment of the Birkin buyer (to fund the check issued Nate). “Monday came and she called again early to say the buyer’s check bounced so she’d just deposit the amount to my account that afternoon. I kept calling the bank all day as I was leaving for Europe the next day, and nothing. I had already issued a check to my nephew dated Feb. 23. I didn’t want that to bounce, especially since I would be away. I decided to get back the check, and just paid my nephew in cash. I didn’t want any trouble with my family.”
On their way to the airport, Tom finally told Nate: “Can’t you see, the pyramid is crumbling?”
Tom says he always had misgivings about Sheila’s dealings, but he wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt. He thought it was too good to be true, but he had no reason to doubt her; she was a good friend to Nate. And up until that moment, she always delivered.
Turned out his gut feel was right. “If you can make that much money out of nothing, why would you let other people in?” Tom says rhetorically. “You’d just keep it for yourself! The fact that she can extract money from people for nothing, she must be good, all right.”
Sheila has not been seen or heard from since February. Nate and their friends suspect she’s hiding somewhere in the US. When things unraveled, it became known that the woman had duped many people, including her own closest friends and Nate’s. The others lost enormous amounts that made the P550,000 Nate had lost seem like loose change.
“Funny because we had regular dinners and no one ever spoke of their business dealings with Sheila,” Nate says wryly. “It just seemed like good business that each wanted to keep it a secret…
“One time Sheila went to the wife-manager of an artist to ask for P5 million,” Nate says. “Her favorite line was ‘magwalis-walis ka diyan, baka naman may mahanap kang P5 million.’ When that manager told her she had no money and to ask from our friend Jane instead, Sheila replied that how could she do that when Jane was just on an allowance from her rich husband. In truth she’d already gotten P13 million from Jane!
“When it was suggested that she come to me instead, she told the person that we were not close. I’m the godfather of her son!”
Nate estimates Sheila has made off with about P500 million from different people, based on the claims of those who have come forward. “We can’t really tell how much. More victims are coming out every day.”
(Nate, Tom and Celina, another victim, spoke to Inquirer on condition of anonymity, pending the filing of a case against Sheila. Other supposed victims declined our requests for interview.)
Nate witnessed Sheila’s transformation from the simple girl he met eight years ago to a Birkin-toting social butterfly.
On her birthday last April, Sheila had a Makati salon closed for her private party. She had the model’s posters on the walls replaced with her own portraits, and she hired a top caterer. After the salon party, she and her guests were chauffeured to a five-star hotel, where she hosted dinner and after-dinner cocktails.
Nate never wondered how Sheila was able to maintain her lifestyle; he just assumed her Birkin business was doing very good.
Sheila’s husband, Jake, works for a high-profile veteran politician and wears designer suits.
“Hermes, Louis Vuitton,” Tom says. “He never wore Hugo Boss because he said it was beneath him, and that’s what he told people.” Jake’s shoe closet of over 200 pairs of designer brands—Prada, Dior, Gucci—was even featured in a shoe blog, says Nate.
In an art fair last year, Sheila’s young son pointed to a random painting and said he liked it. The mom didn’t think twice about plunking P75,000 for the painting, Nate says.
Of how the couple kept their lavish lifestyle, says Tom: “I told Nate that it could be one of two things: It was either Sheila’s business was doing so good, or her husband was really corrupt.”
One time, Nate went to a Greenbelt 4 boutique with Sheila and her husband. Jake paid for the purchases in cash. When Nate asked why he didn’t use a credit card since it was a large amount, Jake joked that it was better that way since it meant no paper trail.
Not just Birkins
Sheila’s scheme turned out to be not just about Birkins. “To others, it would be paintings,” says Tom, who also owns an art gallery. “She would show a photo of a painting on her phone. She’ll say 10 Anita Magsaysay-Ho! Even a Monet! How can she get a Monet! All these people believed! Different approaches to different people. Minsan alahas, watches. Very creative.
“There are lots of sad stories. She got money from someone who was getting chemo. Someone’s house got foreclosed because they invested all their savings with Sheila. She also got money from the owner of her son’s school, even the PTA. Of course, how could they not trust her? She brought her son’s entire class to Ocean Park, complete with lunch!”
While no case has yet been filed against Sheila, the irony is that one of her former airline friends, Celina, is being sued by an investor who lost P7 million. Celina’s son had asked Jake to issue an affidavit attesting that Sheila and his mom were not “business partners,” ergo not in cahoots, as alleged in the suit, but Jake refused.
Celina was Sheila’s senior in the airline they worked for. The older woman was a sponsor at Sheila’s wedding.
“I had no reason to doubt her,” says Celina in a phone call to the Inquirer. “She had no history of being dishonest.”
Distressed about being sued for Sheila’s crime, Celina laments her predicament. “I really want to go after her, but I can’t even do that because I can’t pay for a lawyer; she made off with all my money!” She lost P11 million of her personal money to her old friend.
A fashion designer, who asked for anonymity, describes Sheila as a good client for about five years. She never haggled, he says. At one point, she paid him with a painting; she claimed she owned a gallery.
“That was her packaging: young, rich and successful,” says the designer. “She always wore new things. Her bags were always the latest.”
Nate also found out that Sheila never sold those Chanels and Celines he had been buying for her in Europe; she used them herself. “She just never wore them when we were together. But she told our friends they were gifts from me! No wonder when someone had a birthday, they would tease me, pa-Chanel ka naman.”
The week before Sheila disappeared, Nate learned she held a garage sale, apparently to offset her other debts.
“She had 40 pairs of Tory Burch flats. If she liked something, she bought it in all colors. The Celine bags that are so popular now, she had 12 of those, all in exotic leather.”
Their friend Amy, who was closest to Sheila, wasn’t spared. She offered to sell Amy’s croc Birkin, and the trusting friend said yes. Sheila didn’t sell the bag, she only pawned it. “Good thing Amy knew the person she pawned it to. Amy redeemed her own bag,” Nate says.
It wasn’t, however, the only time Sheila tried to pull a fast one on her best friend. She sold a 3-carat diamond ring to Amy, an object so cherished by the self-made IT entrepreneur that she had a safe built just for it.
But at a party, a jeweler-friend noticed that the rock was a fake. Sheila shrugged this off, saying that the stone must have been replaced by the person she entrusted with it for cleaning. She offered to reimburse Amy, just like that. The trusting friend was appeased.
Sheila’s tastes had gotten quite expensive through the years that on a Bangkok vacation last year with Nate, Tom and their girl friends, she refused to join them in the city’s bargain haunts. Instead she stayed behind in the hotel to get spa treatments, and shopped only in high-end malls.
Sheila’s Twitter account, which is public but hasn’t been updated since she disappeared, also provides an insight into her lavish lifestyle. Frequent subjects of her tweet exchanges with friends were designer clothes, bags, shoes and jewelry. (Her Facebook account has been deleted.)
Investors and creditors had cleared Sheila’s home of furniture and art pieces, says Nate, the same home she claimed she owned and had renovated for P2 million. “We were there for the blessing. It turns out they were just renting.”
Her family has since vacated the apartment, according to Nate.
“She just had to keep up with friends!” Tom says. “She must have thought they wouldn’t stay her friends if she didn’t have the same things they had.”
Even in his resentment, there’s a tinge of grief in Nate’s voice over the friendship and trust that’s now in ruins. “She was really nice,” he concedes. “We never knew she would be scamming everyone.”