by Beth Connolly on August 24, 2012
A group of investors, many based in Corona, Queens, were fleeced by a pair of cunning criminals who fostered trust based on a shared community identity.
The pair, Liliana Henao and Oswaldo Patino, were from Columbia and Ecuador, respectively, and targeted the Spanish-speaking recent immigrant community in Queens, the New York Times reports. They claimed to operate a business, Inversionistas Unidos, importing tropical fruits and vegetables, and paid investors handsomely–up to six percent, report victims–each time a “shipment” came in, approximately every six weeks. Yet though the company maintained a warehouse in the Bronx, victims now believe there was never any fruit transported by the company.
The company’s 400 investors were mostly from Queens, though some lived as far away as Florida. The company evidently did not have much trouble attracting investors, as word spread quickly through networks of Latino families and friends. Investors earned a commission for bringing in new investors. One victim, Ruben Loja, who lost $70,000 (his life savings) in the scheme, said he also lost the trust of his siblings, whom he talked into investing in the scheme.
Until the scheme folded, times were good. Investors received checks ranging anywhere from $600 to $15,000 every cycle, depending on how much they had invested in the scheme. Henao and Patino held wine and cheese receptions with investors twice a week and invited them to drop into their Rego Park office anytime to chat. They empathized with investors’ distrust of big banks and more mainstream investment vehicles, and emphasized their dream to help recent immigrants achieve a better life in the U.S. They encouraged investors to volunteer with Latino charities.
But the good times couldn’t last. Soon, the scheme collapsed, and checks sent to investors bounced. Though complaints have been filed with the FBI, the FTC, and the Queens District Attorney’s office, Patino and Henao are nowhere to be found. Once the scheme folded, and checks issued began bouncing, Patino and Henao gathered their investors together and warned them that they would need to leave the country due to threats on their lives. They admonished angry investors that pressing charges would risk the investors’ status in the U.S., as many of them were illegal immigrants.
Even if Henao and Patino are located and prosecuted, there’s no guarantee that the scheme’s victims could get their investments back. Tragically, individuals who came to the United States for a better life ended up losing all of the progress they’d made toward that goal. Many of the victims lost their life savings and are struggling to make rent and mortgage payments. All because two people who clearly understood their predicament took advantage of that understanding, rather than offer the empathy they publicly broadcast.
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