(Names have been changed pending the filing of a case in court.)
What happens now? It’s the question on everyone’s head after the P500-million Birkin scam story came out in Lifestyle two Sundays ago.
It’s the same question we asked our sources, alleged victims of “Sheila,” who made off with an estimated half a billion pesos from transactions involving high-end designer bags, artworks and jewelry.
“Nate,” one of Sheila’s victims and the first to approach the Inquirer to tell his story, says a case has been filed by at least one of the victims, but he can’t provide exact details. He lost P550,000, but he was clear from the start that he didn’t plan to pursue a court case as the cost of filing a lawsuit alone would be greater than his actual loss.
“I’ve kept the check that bounced, though,” he says. “It sits there on my desk as a reminder.”
There’s no consolidated effort among the victims to file a class action against Sheila because the victims don’t want to call undue attention to themselves, according to Nate. Many of them are cagey.
“These are businessmen and women. It reflects badly on them if people find out that they’ve been conned.”
“And, of course,” he adds, “they don’t want the BIR (Bureau of Internal Revenue) to look into their finances… That’s the sad thing; if everyone just lets this slide, even Jake might slip away.”
“Jake” is Sheila’s husband who has stayed behind. She’s believed to have fled abroad.
Nate says there has been no move by Sheila to settle things. He confirms, though, that Jake has closed his store in Makati that sold limited-edition footwear.
“Celina,” Sheila’s former airline coworker and wedding sponsor, says another ex-coworker has filed a case against Sheila, but Celina declines to give details. “I have to ask for permission,” she says.
“I’m enraged!” says Celina. “I wouldn’t mind coming out in the open and screaming her name for the world to know, but she put me in a position where I can’t even do that. She wiped me out! I don’t have the P400,000 needed to file a lawsuit. Now I’m just trying to make sure that I don’t compromise myself in this lawsuit that was filed against me because of her.”
Celina pooh-poohs claims made by a blog commenter that Jake and Sheila separated even before the scam unraveled, thereby suggesting Jake’s innocence. “Who would believe that? They were still together. She disappeared only last February.”
The owner of the Makati salon where Sheila celebrated her birthday last year also denies having been victimized. “Almost,” he says. “But it didn’t get anywhere. She was talking to me about investments and stuff but I didn’t give it any thought. She did pay me the full amount of P150,000 for holding the party in the salon.”
Sheila, the hairstylist says, was a good client. Her friends also went to the same salon. “She was very nice. That’s why I was so shocked when I heard whispers among my clients. Yes, some of them have lost money to her.”
While this is the first scam of its kind to be brought out in the open, this certainly isn’t the first.
Ingrid Go, Lifestyle columnist and the blogger behind The Bag Hag Diaries, says alleged victims have approached her to write about another woman who pulled the same fraudulent activity involving designer purses. The alleged perpetrator’s mother, says Go, works for a five-star hotel in Makati.
Still another woman, married to an expat, got away scot-free, she says.
Cases such as these may not prosper—if a case is filed at all—owing to one thing: There are no receipts.
Says Celina, “One of Sheila’s victims who lost P35 million can’t do anything because she has no evidence. There are no receipts to prove their transactions.”
“I always said no to these people coming to me because my blog isn’t about that. And you can’t really tell for sure how much of what they’re telling you is true,” says Go. “The underground economy in the Philippines is so big! There are others involved in diamonds. If only all of these people paid their taxes.”
Go laments how the aftermath of these scams has reflected on designer bags. “They give designer brands a bad name. This is our society’s doing! We’re so in love with the idea of popularity and the things that we don’t have! Owning a Birkin won’t solve your problems. Having a Birkin won’t make you a better person, in the same way that not having one won’t make you into a lesser person. It’s all about greed. Who are we trying to impress? People that we don’t even like!”
Go’s advice: “If you can’t afford it that you have to pay in installments, forget it! And when it comes to money, don’t trust anyone. Even your friends will turn on you because of money.”