P500-million ‘Birkin scam

How a woman’s obsession led to crime

Are you one of those women who dream having all the luxury in the world? Do you have wads of cash lying around or just dreaming of becoming filthy rich? Try to resist desire for material things that you don’t believe you can ever have.

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.

Plausible proposition
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.”

Crumbling pyramid

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!”


Social butterfly

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.

No haggling

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.

Lavish lifestyle

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.”                        

Source: Inquirer
In Shiela’s warped mind she seemed to have care about Nate as she did not
scam him as much as her other ‘friends’. Plus when she told other people that she and Nate are not
close saved Nate from possible law suit. It proved that he had nothing to do with her
scam. 
It is sad that this woman and her hubby stooped down to just
so people would envy them. Why do other people try so hard to impress people who would not care less about you if you were not rich.
Ikaw, ano ang gusto mong kaibigan? Isang kaibigan na ubod nang bait, grandiyosa at magandang makisama pero scammer o isang kaibigan na simple lang pero laging  nagsasabi ng tutuo at hindi manloloko?
Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg is an example of a wealthy person who knows being rich doesn’t oblige him to live lavishly.

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