WHEN PYRAMIDS COLLAPSE: Investors in VisMin are hit with a Ponzi double-whammy.

By Shara Cayetano

To thousands of would-be investors in Visayas and Mindanao, the world might as well have ended in 2012. There is only one difference: while the much-hyped Mayan apocalypse came and passed without much disaster for the rest of the world, our countrymen’s financial Armageddon was unprecedented and extreme.

“It was like a storm,” a Pagadian motorcab driver described in an Inquirer article. In September 2012, investment firm Aman Futures was at its height, catering to the masses that came to line up as early as 2:00 am when the office opened at 8:00 am. Such was the allure of the company, which promised 30-80% returns on investments that began at Php50,000. Although some investors like Pagadian City Mayor Samuel Co were able to hedge millions of pesos in Aman, the majority of the company’s investors were low-income earners, such as market vendors and motorcab drivers. As such, many of these citizens pooled their money to reach the minimum investment amount of Php50,000, drawn by the promise of massive returns, and the growth of Aman Futures’ investment pyramid quickly took off.

But however quick Aman Futures’ ascent to fame was, its decline was to become even faster, akin to a rampaging hurricane. By the end of September 2012, the company’s office had shut down and its president, Fernando Luna, was nowhere to be found. On October 8, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued a cease-and-desist order against Aman Futures, exposing it for what it truly was: the largest Ponzi scheme created in the country, reminiscent of the $64 billion investment pyramid scam in the US perpetrated by New York-based investment banker Bernard Madoff in 2008.

While Aman Futures did not swindle as much money from its investors as did Madoff (the company got away with an estimated Php12 billion from 15,000 victims), the aftermath was no less unpleasant and unfortunate. Cases of suicide have been recorded from among the scammed investors, and some victims have become violent against people they suspect to have been part of Aman’s operations.

Worse, Aman Futures was not the only one of its kind that had been operating at the time. A previously-unknown but similar scheme by the Rasuman group in Lanao del Sur went bust earlier this year, taking away as much as Php1 billion from its victims. Ironically enough, the Rasuman group allegedly invested Php157 million in the Aman Futures scheme in an effort to raise enough money to pay their investors back. According to a Sun Star report, the group was offered between 85-150% return of investment within two months, and was about to get their money back when Aman Futures declared bankruptcy. The financial storm that the two investments scams have brought upon thousands of people have left these same people in particularly dire straits.

If it’s any consolation, at least the victims of Aman Futures and the Rasuman group can be assured that justice will be served them. Operatives from the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have been able to apprehend officials from both investment scams. Aman Futures president Fernando Luna and his wife Nimfa have surrendered to DOJ Secretary Leila de Lima, and have since been turned over to the NBI. Authorities are also working out a way to repatriate Aman Futures founder Manuel Amalilio back from Malaysia.

The Ponzi schemes of 2012 may have come as a shock to many, but like many unprecedented storms, the experience of being ripped off in such a grand manner will definitely give all the victims a clearer perspective on material gain – and how fleeting it really is.

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