Talk of the town: the Birkin scammer

“A social climbing is a social climbing is a social climbing,” said one righteous commenter on my Uniqlo entry.
No offence to people who call their bags “babies,” but I’m not really impressed by people who tote expensive bags. I have a friend who sells bags that cost as much as a car, or a downpayment for a car. Some of them pay him in post-dated checks. Some of the checks bounce. Some of the people go into hiding.
As for me, I’d rather have a Porter bag I can pay for in one go. Thank God Comme des Garçons bags are not expensive.
I’ll buy the occasional leather bag (not into exotics), but canvas and nylon also work for me.

This Sunday a lot of families talked about the Birkin scammer over lunch.
I don’t know this woman. I have never heard of her until today. If she were standing in front of me, I wouldn’t know it.
But looking at her Twitter account, we are only separated by two degrees. People need to be more careful who they associate with.
Read Cheche Moral’s article in the Inquirer and find out why one shouldn’t be blinded by “riches.”

The P500-million ‘Birkin scam,’ or how a woman’s obsession led to crime
By Cheche V. Moral

Philippine Daily Inquirer

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…”

anonymous

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.
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.

Birkin

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.”
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.”

anonymous

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!”

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.

celine

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.

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.

anonymous

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.

celine

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.”

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  • Sydney

    I had to come back to this blog entry… Was wondering if the husband of the Birkin Scammer is one of the Napoles conduits named in this article: http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/473759/7-napoles-conduits-named-in-nbi-affidavits

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  • guest

    It’s not a crime to indulge on some luxury items, as long one doesn’t go into debt for doing so. On behalf of all those who are in poverty, I would spend some money on condoms to be distributed to those parents in impoverished areas where they have so many children they could barely afford to provide basic needs to. We can not solve everyone’s problem on this planet. Each of us should be held accountable for our actions and its consequences.

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  • Breezypet

    why? is it their fault that they got very very rich and could afford? do they have to make the sacrifice of not getting something that can make them happy just because there are poor people, mind you some are simple because they are irresponsible.

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  • http://profile.yahoo.com/PFBSNLJEABVABYWVE5W33M7YBE lorna

    hello ms. c. i’m an avid reader of your blog. share ko lang po yung isang experience ko before when I went to greenbelt october last year to watch a spanish film nung spanish film fest. Bago kasi ako nanood ng film, I went to the ladies’ restroom and fixed my hair and makeup when I have noticed a very pretty woman sa bandang likod, sa left side ko, mestiza and iisipin mo na she’s from the palanca-araneta clan with her facial features. And sa loob-loob ko, “wow, the girl’s really pretty and looks very elite.’ She was actually waiting for her friend at that time na nasa loob ng isang cubicle. Paglabas ng friend nya, nagparinig sya and she said something like “Look at that girl.” And her friend looked up to me and said “O, why, she looks okay and decent to me. What’s the problem?” They kept looking at me and the pretty girl said “Look at her bag. I also own one of the same kind. My God, pwede ba, hindi bagay sa kanya noh. How come she can afford that? I even bought mine sa States.” And the friend said, “Ang mean mo, girl” and they went out of the restroom chuckling. At the back of my mind, I was thinking, should I lash out at the pretty girl and say “Miss, pasensya ka na ha, sa ukay ko lang kasi nabili ‘tong bag kong Cath Kidston na Php200. Hindi ko naman talaga kayang bumili ng brand new nito eh. At kaya lang din ako nandito sa greenbelt ay para manood ng ti-sisingkwenta-pesos na Espanyol na pelicula, hindi para magpanggap na sosyal. Hindi ko kasi maatim na bumili ng bago at mahal na bag tapos ang mga miyembro ng pamilya namin ay kakain ng pancit canton at de-latang sardinas sa hapunan. At isa pa, hindi rin kakayanin ng konsensya ko na bumili ng bago at mahal na bag kahit na kaya ng sweldo ko, kung alam ko namang pwede akong magpadala na lang ng tulong pinansyal o pagkain sa noo’y mga kaibigang biktima ng bagyong Pedring at naiwan noon sa mga bubong ng bahay at walang mga makain.” Pero hindi ko na nagawang pagsalitaan pa yung pretty na girl. Lumabas din ako ng restroom noon at pinanood yung dalawang babae maglakad palayo. Nakakalungkot lang po isipin na dahil lang sa bag, o sa damit, o sa estado sa buhay,nagkakaroon ng karapatan yung mga kayang bumili ng mahal na mga gamit na alipustahin yung mga hindi kayang bumili o yung may ayaw bumili at maglustay ng pera sa luho. Akala ko, lumang pag-iisip at pag-uugali na yung ganun pero nagkamali ako. So pasensya na po sa mga mayayaman o may kayang bumili ng mga mahal na gamit kung makita nyo kaming mga payak na tao na mayroon din ng mga gamit nyo at hindi pala kami binabagayan ng mga gamit o suot nyo. 

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  • Margaventurino

    ganyan talaga mga flight attendants! mey kilala ako sa A–AN- Airlines nahuli money laundering sa seoul! asawa ng pilot! nung kinasal sosyal pa ang gown! money launderer naman pala! name nya C–L-

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  • http://www.currystrumpet.com/ Deepa

    Bringing in large quantities of luxury goods into the Philippines for resale without paying the necessary taxes… hindi ba may tawag diyan?

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  • http://chuvaness.com CVS

    there’s no update from me.

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  • Ms Bautista926

    In reply to Tubera10.  You are 100% correct in your statement. Her partner even sent her to Ateneo to study short courses on perhaps management or something to do with are gallery. Her partner is such a nice guy who made Sarah his partner without investing ant money cause he had an instant liking and trust toward her. In the beginning she was just working for him.

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  • http://twitter.com/frazzolino Jude Lopez Mancuyas

    Well, wala namang porma si Teresita Sy Coson. Hahahahaha! just kidding..

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  • literarybulimia

    Ponshon! Hahahah… 

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_LIAI3J4PISMOGFVMB4PLRZIMOI str8boy

    tatay ni Divine Lee?? Hindi pa yata nakakulong kahit may warrant of arrest na. Tama lang na makulong dahil ang pambili ng Birkin ng anak galing sa mga kawawang contributors ng Pag-Ibig fund

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  • omnesia

     It’s all right. You know, I haven’t been to New York but I keep up with what’s going on there through the news and Internet. Ang daming mga feeling dyan eh, mga manloloko at mga illegal immigrants. Trying to make it big in the Big Apple. What do you know, I guess we have the same thinking after all!

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  • omnesia

     So how does ONE article on ONE person committing crimes make Manila “a little town infested with a LOT of wannabes”???

    Please share with me your logic! Gosh, you guys are hopelessly prejudiced, and obviously you can’t see beyond your narrow mind.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002470662269 Maria Kristine Chan

    I google nyo na lng, anjan pics nya with janina dizon, she buys alot of jewelries and she is always present in every function/parties for the rich

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  • http://twitter.com/zfiledh Zel

    Yiiiiiikes. :(

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