Harmless enough hobby, stamp-collecting, you might think, redolent of inky schoolboys or fusty gents in leather armchairs. Nice little earner, too, if you consider that these miniature artworks are relics of a postal age fast fading into history.
That's what hundreds of thousands of Spaniards thought when they entrusted their savings -sometimes all they had - to two well- established stamp-dealing firms, Afinsa and Forum Filatelico. Savers were persuaded to buy stamps with the promise they would increase in value, and were offered between 6 per cent and 12 per cent return, far more than the rate offered by banks. Around 350,000 savers, mostly recruited by word of mouth from friends and family, contributed about EUR5bn over more than 20 years. Some contributed small sums each month, others handed over their entire pension pot.
Then suddenly last Tuesday, this gentle pastime lost its innocence. Police raided and shut down the two giants of the stamp- dealing world on suspicion of fraud, tax evasion, embezzlement and money laundering' and savers realised, aghast, that they risked losing everything.
"My dream is broken. I am 45 and have a five-year-old son. Now I have nothing. I put in EUR60,000 - not much, but for me it was a great fortune. My indignation knows no limits," one investor, Maria Cruz Ingles, said.
"I can't tell you my real name because my father would have a heart attack if he found out," said "Jaime", 55, one of hundreds of investors who besieged an office of Forum Filatelico in Barcelona this week. "The income was to pay for a care home for my parents in their old age." Jaime had invested EUR220,000.
In Madrid, desperate and bewildered savers blocked the traffic in protest when staff at the headquarters of Forum Filatelico refused to let them withdraw their savings. "I've been frightened for the past two months," Encarnacion Cortes, 53, said. "I came to withdraw my money but they raised a thousand obstacles. They said the investment would appreciate, so very reluctantly I left it."
State prosecutors believe the operation amounts to a pyramid- selling scam, when high returns for early investors are financed with money brought by new savers enticed into the scheme. Eventually the promised outlay spirals out of all proportion to the assets, in this case stamps, the whole thing collapses and no one gets their money back.
A spokesman for the police said: "Potential investors were offered high returns from the purchase and management of a stamp fund that was apparently made up of overvalued - or even fake - stamps and whose returns did not apparently come from the fund but from money received from new clients."
Laura (not her real name) was among those who denounced Forum Filatelico at the police station in Madrid nearest to the company's headquarters. She had just lost her job and was worried about the EUR8,000 she'd spent on stamps in the past two years. But she was more worried about the health of her mother:
"My mother was the first person in our family to invest," Laura said. "She was so sure that everything was above board and a good business that she recommended it to all her friends and relations." Laura's mother developed close relations with the company. "She took courses to become an agent and set out to recruit people to the scheme. Now since the news of the suspected fraud her clients never stop ringing, demanding information. She can't do anything' she's just another victim. But she feels like a fraudster."
Spaniards have been scared off by the swooping stock markets, dodgy pension plans and speculative property deals of recent years, and flocked to a business based on stamps, which by their nature seemed to enjoy official endorsement. Stamp and coin collecting has been popular in Spain for decades, and parks and squares throughout the country are taken over at weekends by enthusiasts exchanging their wares. …