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(506) 2223-1327        Published Monday, Sept. 29, 2008, in Vol. 8, No. 193       E-mail us
Jo Stuart
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Shades of Villalobos et al.
Mortgage scam traps expats seeking a good return

By Garland M. Baker
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Looking for high interest on money? There are loan brokers in the local market with customers looking for cash.  Some of these brokers are even lawyers representing their clients.

Watch out.  There is a scam which preys on anyone willing to lend their hard-earned savings.  It is a trap for those blinded by money and eager to beat the interest they are getting at the bank or on certificates of deposit. 

This is how the swindle goes.

First step, finding the right property to use in the scam.

Scamsters look for a property that has not moved for years in the database of the Registro Nacional.  Even though quite a bit of information is available online via the Registro's Web site, it would be very time consuming to find a list of properties not moving without some inside help. 

However, it is very easy to get property information without an owners permission on individual parcels.  Asking neighbors of an unkempt property is a good starting point.  If they say the owner has not been around for a while, the next step would be to check the movements at the Registro to see if the property has shown any activity.  If not, the next place to check would be obituaries and immigration information to see if the owner is either dead or out of the country.

This process can also be done in reverse by looking up property records for people that have died or are out of the country.  If a match is found, it is important to know how long the person has been dead or gone.   Finding information about Costa Ricans is easy.  Almost anything one wants to know can be found at the Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones, the supreme electoral court also known as the Registro Civil.  It is more difficult to find immigration information, but with the right contacts at immigration the information is available.

Once the right property is found, it is time to go to the next step: transferring the property using a crooked notary.  They are not that hard to find.  Usually they are young and need quick cash.

Now for the third step, get the word out a loan is required.  There are many advertisements in the local papers for loan brokers.  The loan brokers look for lenders for a fee.  Usually a high interest rate is offered like 18 percent or more, and the borrower offers three months advance interest.  Expats fall for the gimmick because expats like to lend their money for high interest so they can live off the proceeds.  The multitude of expats involved in the failed high-interest loan operations once very common in Costa Rica are a good testament to this statement. 

When the lender/victim shows up with the cash, the transaction is made with the crooked borrower.  From the funds being loaned, three months interest is taken from the proceeds and given back to the lender as prepaid interest.  He or she goes home happy thinking they have made a good deal.   They do not know the property was
blinded investor

not really owned by the person borrowing the money. 

Three months go by and no more interest is paid.   The borrowers disappear and the lender goes to an attorney to try and collect.  The lawyer finds it impossible to find the scamsters.  In some cases, legal proceeding are already in process by the legitimate owners or their heirs to get the property back.

Even in the best of cases, the chances the person lending the money will get it back are very remote.  Usually, the people involved are seasoned criminals who know the ropes.  They know that eventually the property will revert back to the original owner and probably no one will try very hard to catch them.  Even if they are accused by the court, they most likely will not do any jail time.  Many cases like the example here just expire and the bad guys get off with the crime.

Expats that get caught in this kind of scam are usually scammed again by the legal professionals they hire to protect them.  The lawyers tell them they have good hopes of getting their money back and collect a handsome fee up front.  In most cases, the truth is they will never get their money back and spending anything to fight to do so is just throwing good money after bad.

Why is it so easy to hoodwink people into dubious financial transactions?  It appears just to be human nature.  Everyone wants to find the gold at the end of the rainbow or the lost treasure of Sierra Madre.  Some expats who come to Costa Rica to live out their retirement years are easily sucked into the most preposterous of schemes.   Most of them just want to find a way to augment their retirement and others are just blinded by money and do not make good decisions.

Garland M. Baker is a 36-year resident and naturalized citizen of Costa Rica who provides multidisciplinary professional services to the international community.  Reach him at  Baker has undertaken the research leading to these series of articles in conjunction with A.M. Costa Rica.  Find the collection at, a complimentary reprint is available at the end of each article.  Copyright 2004-2008, use without permission prohibited.

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San José, Costa Rica, Monday, Sept. 29, 2008, Vol. 8, No. 193

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U.S. Commerce chief lauds
free trade in Extra article

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The U.S. Commerce secretary prefaced his visit here with an opinion piece in El Diario Extra Friday in which he praised the benefits of free trade. The secretary, Carlos M. Gutierrez told Costa Ricans that “Democracies like ours with a history of political stability, social progress and a commitment to human rights will benefit the most from free trade and increased investment.”

Gutierrez is heading a delegation of U.S. business people who will be meeting with potential business partners here. The group is scheduled to meet with President Óscar Arias Sánchez Tuesday afternoon.  Gutierrez said that he would be visiting Intel and Wal-Mart’s Centroamerica’s Hortifruti subsidiary. He noted in his essay that U.S. investment in Costa Rica grew from $328 million in 2002 to more than $1 billion last year.

The Commerce secretary, a Cuban native, is fluent in Spanish. Among other issues, Arias will want to talk with him about another extension on approval of free trade treaty legislation. The final measure that would change Costa Rican law to conform to what the treaty requires is frozen in the legislature after a Sala IV constitutional court rebuff, and the country will not make an Oct. 1 deadline. That deadline already is the result of an extension agreed to by the six other countries in the pact.

The United States has not formally approved another extension. Gutierrez and his delegation also are visiting the Dominican Republic, a country that easily implemented the trade treaty March 1, 2007.

Our readers' opinions
Canadians seem to like
 minority governments

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

We've had three years of Stephen Harper's Conservative government. While many don't like him or his party's stance, they've been content with Conservative rule because the economy has been very strong (until only recently) and his government has a minority position, meaning that they can't do anything that they want but have to govern by forging alliances and building consensus on bills and initiatives with the other parties in parliament. 

Canadians seem to like minority governments, after 25 years of back and forth swings between Liberal and Conservative majorities that keep making big changes in policy, and too many instances of corruption which comes from the arrogance of majority rule.

So, the Conservatives seem to have calculated that they're now perhaps well known enough nationally (perhaps not as scary as first portrayed), and their leader is accepted enough (but not really adored) that perhaps the time has come to try to roll the dice for a majority government. They want to desperately hold the election before a Democrat sweeps out the like-minded government in Washington in November, and before anyone notices and holds them responsible for an economy headed into the tank.   There are rumours of secret budget deficits, daily news of job loss increases, etc.  And, they're helped by the Liberal party having a leader (Stephan Dion) who's not at all charismatic in English Canada, and who has baggage in French speaking Quebec (He's from Quebec and led the Federalist charge against separation there for past governments).

Canadians are not at all like Americans politically. We're far more liberal in attitudes on a whole range of issues.  Sure both electorates vote according to their pocket book, but the other issues of importance are very different. For example, one of the biggest issues in the election is whether we should bring in a national carbon tax to help offset our national CO2 emissions and help fight climate change — a Liberal proposal.  That kind of serious initiative by one of the major parties about addressing global warming hasn't happened south of the border. We have a national Green party leader taking part in our national election debate!

My prediction is that Harper will woo almost enough voters to form a majority, but that he'll fall short again, and we'll have another minority government — bad for him, but good for the country.  In one year, his government may fall due to bad economic circumstances, and the Liberals, by then having dumped Stephan Dion for another more charismatic leader, will find themselves running another election campaign and wondering whether they'll be given a minority or a majority government.
Tom Deligiannis
Ciudad Colón
and Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

Liberals face reversal
in Canadian elections

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

 I am a Canadian businessman involved in both politics and business. I also have Costa Rican residency and speak fluent Spanish. As a result of the aformentioned, I am extremely busy!
The short take on this is that the Canadian economy is quite solid primarily because Canadians are a conservative lot. This is especially so when it comes to mortgage financing. All high ratio mortage loans MUST be insured in favour of the lending institution in the case of non-payment or foreclosure. Canadians have not used their homes as ATM machines unlike our neighbours to the south.
Politically, what with 20 days to go before the National Election the Conservatives, (read Republican) are favoured to win a majority. The Liberals, the other major Canadian party, (read Democrat) will suffer a dramatic reversal and be replaced by our historically third major party, the New Democratic Party, as the official government opposition.
Gilles Rancourt
London, Ontario, Canada

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San José, Costa Rica, Monday, Sept. 29, 2008, Vol. 8, No. 193

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Group friendly to Villalobos Brothers puts itself on hold
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The investor group that supports fugitive financier Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho is putting itself on hold, according to its most recent Web posting.

This is the group that raised in excess of $100,000 from those who lost money from the Villalobos operation and hired a lawyer, Jose Miguel Villalobos Umaña, to present their point of view that Villalobos was innocent.

The unofficial organization, called United Concerned Citizens and Residents, suffered one reverse after another, culminating with the conviction of Oswaldo Villalobos Camacho and his imprisonment.

This also is the same group that distributed a series of letters that were supposed to have come from Luis Enrique Villalobos from wherever he is hiding. The group's point of view was that jealous bankers connived with the Costa Rican government to shut down the honorable and profitable Villalobos enterprise that paid up to 3 percent a month to investors, mostly expats.

That opinion clashes with that of a trial court and appeals court which found that Oswaldo Villalobos was engaged in fraud. During his trial there was no evidence presented to show how the company could pay such high interest. The court labeled it a ponzi scheme in which new deposits are used to pay interest to continuing customers. The Villalobos operation was bringing in about $200 million a year, according to figures released at the trial.

In the latest message, the organization said "We were all shocked by the miscarriage of justice in the trial of Osvaldo, and further shocked by the blanket rejection from the higher court.  This matter should have been over long ago, but it is not.  Osvaldo remains in jail and we still do not have our money."

The group contends that Luis Enrique Villalobos would return to Costa Rica if he did not fear becoming a victim of the local courts.  The group also claims that Luis Enrique Villalobos had a great amount of money deposited somewhere in the world and that he would willing pay his former customers except for some banking technicalities related to his being on the wanted list of the International Police Agency.

The group also has suffered physically. John Manners, one
of the founders, has been in the United States for medical treatment, and all the investors are six years older than when Luis Enrique Villalobos closed the doors on his Mall San Pedro operation Oct. 12, 2002

The group said in its note that they had hoped that Luis Enrique Villalobos would seek a negotiated settlement with his creditors. That is what Luis Milanes, operator of a similar high-interest setup, Savings Unlimited, is trying to do now. He has returned to Costa Rica in an effort to avoid a criminal conviction.

However, in the farewell note, the group admitted that for Villalobos "It is reasonable to assume, however, that a well-founded distrust of the system of justice here in Costa Rica is at an all time high after witnessing the treatment of his brother.  For the time being at least, it is clear that the negotiation option seems to be tabled."

Those less friendly to Villalobos point out that a ponzi scheme eats up a lot of money and that Luis Enrique Villalobos did not even make overtures for settlement when his brother was on trial. He simply may not have the money.

The organization said that it hopes Luis Enrique Villalobos returns when the statute of limitations for fraud expires in four more years and that would somehow "effectively remove the current obstacles to regaining control of his foreign bank accounts."

The investor group said it would keep the data base it set up to help Luis Enrique Villalobos repay his creditors and it would continue to keep its e-mail accounts operational.

The next move, however, must come from Luis Enrique Villalobos himself, the group said.

Oswaldo Villalobos got 18 years in prison May 16, 2007. An appeals court upheld that verdict. The penalty is nearly a life sentence for the man who was 62 years old on that day.

As part of the sentence, a number of expat creditors were awarded money settlements. However, the United Concerned Citizens and Residents vigorously opposed filing formal criminal and civil charges against the Villalobos and embarked on a public relations campaign to get creditors to withdraw their formal complaints. Those who did withdraw did not receive any money judgments.

Banco Central decrees new life for old 500-colon coins
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Remember those commemorative 500-colons coins that were demoted to paperweights in 2003?

Well, the Banco Central de Costa Rica now says they can be used as currency.

The coins involved are marked with the year 2000 and have an engraving of the Banco Central building on the face. They were not well-loved because they are only slightly larger than the 100-colon coin and were easily confused.

The Banco Central said the commemorative coin was rehabilitated at a board of directors meeting, but a posting on the Web site did not say why. The central bank probably has a stash of such coins it wants to move into the currency system.

The 500-colon coin in use today is slightly larger and carries the number 500 on the face. It came out in
commemorative coins
Banco Central de Costa Rica photo
Coin has engraving of the Banco Central on its face.

December 2003, about the same time the commemorative coins were relegated to the dresser drawers.

The commemorative coin was issued in 2000 to mark the 50th birthday of the Banco Central.

Doing a good deed cost U.S. citizen his life in Esparza
By José Pablo Ramírez Vindas
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff

An investigator said that a good deed is what led to the murder of a U.S. citizen in Esparza Wednesday night.

The Poder Judicial identified the dead man as John Daniels Tornwell, 60.

Alberto Palma, subdirector of the Judicial Investigating Organization, said that Tornwell left a bar where he had been enjoying the company of a fellow U.S. citizen to give money to a local women.  The woman, identified by the last names of Solano Valverde, had been begging for money.

While he was outside the bar, Tornwell, who also has been identified by the last name of Cornwells, was accosted by a man who had just been released from jail. That man, now in custody, was identified by the last names of Briceño Campos. The U.S. citzen suffered a stab wound in the
groin and died in Hospital Monseñor Sanabria in Puntarenas.

Palma said that Briceño, 25, is known in Esparza as a criminal and had just completed six months of preventative detention for house burglary. He said the victim was a resident of San Miguel de Barranca, Puntarenas.

The investigator said that the woman, a vagrant, was released the same night because she was not a party to the robbery. Fuerza Pública officers said they also detained a man with the last name of Soto, although his relation to the crime was not specified.

The Poder Judicial said that Juzgado Penal de Puntarenas ordered that Briceño be held for six months preventative detention.

The Poder Judicial said that the victim was well-liked in the area and had made a reputation for himself by repairing home appliances for free for his neighbors.

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San José, Costa Rica, Monday, Sept. 29, 2008, Vol. 8, No. 193

Desire to help Cubans leads to criticism of U.S. policies
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Miami's Cuban American community is rallying to gather donations and financial support to aid hundreds of thousands of Cubans affected by recent hurricanes. But aid organizers say there are too many hurdles to delivering aid because of decades of U.S. restrictions and sour ties between the two nations.

However, many Cuban American leaders are renewing calls to end some U.S. restrictions and improve relations with people in the Communist-led nation.

Donations pour in from Cuban exiles and other Miami communities to help hurricane survivors in Cuba. The headquarters of the Daughters of Charity is at the center of the relief drive.

"The Daughters of Charity is one of five groups that is authorized to bring humanitarian aid into Cuba," according to spokesman Erick Aracil. "We are only allowed to bring food and medicine."

So far, the Catholic group has sent several containers to Cuba, which tightly controls imports. Other shipments have arrived from Venezuela and Russia. But Cuba has rejected similar offers from the U.S. government, saying Washington should instead lift a ban on credit sales to the island.

On a recent trip to Miami, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez repeated an offer to provide more than $5 million in supplies, and he accused Havana of playing politics over the U.S. trade embargo.

"We don't understand," Gutierrez said. "What can be so important that it is bigger than the well-being of people in Cuba? There are people in Cuba who are suffering."
Many Cuban Americans still support the 46-year-old embargo. But there is growing opposition to restrictions imposed by the Bush administration on remittances and family visits to Cuba. Opponents say putting more cash in Cuban hands will help families in trouble. Cuban family rights activist Alvaro Fernandez has opposed the limits since they were passed in 2004.

"It's a perfect storm, because of the situation, people who would not have been in favor of such a thing are in favor of it right now," he said. "So why not do it? Now is a good time just because of the need. There is a real need, and it is going to get worse."

Relief groups say more than two million Cubans may have lost their homes in the recent hurricanes. The storms also ripped up crops, flooded businesses and destroyed roads and power lines. Opponents of the U.S. limits say opening cash lines would speed rebuilding in Cuba.

Commerce Secretary Gutierrez says the focus now should be on getting aid to Cubans, not policy issues.

"To just say anyone can travel and send as much money as they want, we don't see how that political debate helps. All we want to do is help the Cuban people," he said.

Even with a temporary lifting on remittance limits, there is some concern about what impact U.S. dollars can have, says long-time exile Nerida Otero.

"We send money but that is not going to fix the situation, because there is nothing to buy. So we buy food to bring here to send to Cuba," Otero said.

With less than two months before U.S. elections, Cuban exiles say it may be the next president's job to reconsider U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Russia and Venezuela reach agreement on two energy cooperation projects
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

Russia and Venezuela have signed two energy cooperation pacts that promote closer ties between Russia's state-run natural gas monopoly, Gazprom, and Venezuela's state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela S.A.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chávez, attended the signing ceremony Friday in the Russian city of Orenburg. 

Russian energy officials recently announced they will
expand their investment in Venezuela's oil industry. Russia also says it will lend Venezuela $1 billion to buy military hardware.

Chávez is a harsh critic of the United States. His visit to Russia comes as relations between Moscow and Washington have soured in the wake of last month's conflict between Russia and U.S. ally Georgia. 

The Venezuelan leader was scheduled to hold talks with French leaders Friday as part of a trip that has so far taken him to Cuba, China and Russia. 

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Each day someone complains via e-mail that the newspages are from yesterday or the day before. A.M. Costa Rica staffers check every page and every link when the newspaper is made available at 2 a.m. each week day.

So the problem is with the browser in each reader's computer. Particularly when the connection with the  server is slow, a computer will look to the latest page in its internal memory and serve up that page.

Readers should refresh the page and, if necessary, dump the cache of their computer, if this problem persists. Readers in Costa Rica have this problem frequently because the local Internet provider has continual problems.

The A.M. Costa Rica search page has a list of all previous editions by date and a space to search for specific words and phrases. The search will return links to archived pages.

A typical edition will consist of a front page and four other newspages. Each of these pages can be reached by links near the top and bottom of the pages.

Five classified pages are updated daily. Employment listings are free, as are listings for accommodations wanted, articles for sale and articles wanted. The tourism page and the real estate sales and real estate rentals are updated daily.

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Ecuadorian voters OK
Correa-backed constitution

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Ecuadorians approved a new constitution Sunday and gave a political victory to President Rafael Correa.

Polls had predicted passage.

Among the unusual features of the constitution is a section allowing those between 16 and 18 years to cast voluntary votes in elections. For the rest of the electorate, voting continues to be obligatory.

The new constitution was fought by the Roman Catholic Church because some sections seem to provide women with the right to an abortion or allow couples of the same sex to marry.

The constitution centralizes planning, increased the power of the state in most area, including the financial sector, and increases protection to workers. The document has 444 articles and replaces the existing 10-year-old constitution.

The Tribunal Supremo Electoral said in a 10:30 p.m. report that with just 5 percent of the polling places reporting some 65.33 percent voted yes. Unofficial reports said that the percentage of approval ranged nationwide between 63 percent and 70 percent, depending on which political organization was providing the data.

Guayaquil Mayor Jaime Nebot, the leading figure against the referendum, said that the yes vote had triumphed and that he was open to a dialog with Correa, said the newspaper La Hora.

Ecuador has seen a procession of presidents and has been seen widely as a country difficult to administer. Correa, who advocates left-wing policies, opposes U.S.-style capitalism and seeks to close U.S. anti-drug programs in his country.

Public employee dies in fall

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A 50-year-old office worker for the Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transportes died Friday when he fell from a roof at the Colima de Tibás facility. The man, identified as Martín Castro Rodríguez, appears to have volunteered to fix a leak in the facility's roof and fell accidentally, the ministry said.

Jo Stuart
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