In terms of both scale and speed, the Aman Futures pyramid scam is one for the books: According to the National Bureau of Investigation, at least 15,000 investors were duped of some P12 billion in a matter of months this year. The dizzying rise and collapse of the venture has already claimed a few lives. The NBI said “some of the victims” committed suicide, and the other day a sales agent for Aman Futures was killed in a town in Zamboanga del Sur; the houses of at least two relatives of the ex-driver who managed the company have already been torched, so it is possible that the killing is a consequence of the scam.
With the life savings of thousands of people lost to the scam, no one can exclude the possibility of more violence in the near future.
It is no surprise that both Fernando “Nonoy” Luna, the manager, and Manuel Amalilio, the Malaysian Luna reported to and the alleged mastermind of the scam, have fled the country; they, and others behind Aman Futures (the NBI is filing estafa charges against five more persons), could see that the checks they had issued were bouncing.
How can an obvious scam like Aman Futures succeed, even if only for a few months, in the Internet age? The short answer is: Technology does not change, but indeed even amplifies, constant human needs and desires.
When Aman Futures offered clients the chance to earn a 30-40-percent return on investment in eight days, or a much higher (and even more improbable) 50-80-percent ROI in 18 to 20 days, thousands of people wanted to believe that the sales pitch was true: “local politicians, police and military personnel, government workers, market vendors, farmers, drivers, retired employees and overseas Filipino workers” as the first Inquirer story, quoting NBI deputy director Virgilio Mendez, reported.
Not all the clients were ordinary or small or naïve investors.
Even businessmen and prominent local personalities who ought to have known better were lured by the promise of even greater riches. (Truly, immoderate greed knows no bounds.) While ordinary investors queued up outside the offices of Aman Futures in Pagadian City, VIPS could go straight right in. As Aman Futures began to grow rapidly, it raised the minimum investment from P1,000 to P200,000—an amount that only the well-off could readily afford.
But the scam started by offering its initial clients the simple promise of quick cash. “The first clients of Aman Futures were market vendors in Pagadian City who invested P1,000 with a 70-percent return after one week,” Mendez told reporters. It is easy enough to visualize what happened next: Once word spread—and because it was essentially a Ponzi scheme, with Pedro’s money being used to pay Juan, in the first several months the clients were receiving their promised returns—more people got involved, attracted by the prospect of real wealth or (as is more likely) driven out of desperate need.
And then the scam, inevitably, necessarily, collapsed.
One element in the unfolding narrative doesn’t add up, at least based on initial reports. Mayor Samuel Co of Pagadian City, the epicenter of the pyramid scam, said he himself had invested P2 million in Aman Futures, and lost all of it. He gave a somewhat strained explanation: “I learned that my political enemies had also invested. I was planning to use the money to support the barangay officials in next year’s elections.”
But Co also said that he had warned his constituents against investing. “I told them [last April] that the scheme was too good to be true. But still, they took their chances,” he told the Inquirer.
In June, the city was going after Aman Futures, for lack of a business permit. Shortly after, however, Co said he was forced to issue a temporary permit. His explanation was even more tortured: “Our dilemma was that if we go after the firm, we would also be going against our constituents.”
Waxing hot and cold against Aman Futures, looking at it as a scourge for one’s citizens but also as a source for barangay campaign funds—it seems to us that Mayor Co, while a victim, also has some explaining to do.