Lara is about to speak, but then her eyes well up with tears and a lump in her throat stops the words getting out. She looks away.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know I was going to cry again. I just never know when it’s going to come on, it’s such a weird kind of trauma.”
Lara, not her real name, came to France about twenty years ago as boat crew. After a few seasons of living on yachts, she was able in 1995 to buy an apartment in Cannes, which she sold ten years later as her “little nest egg”. Unfortunately, although not exceptionally in this region, her life savings are currently being enjoyed by someone who scammed her.
I have known Lara for ten years and only recently learned of her story. Smart and with her feet firmly planted on the ground, she is the last person I would have expected to see in this situation.
“You don’t believe this kind of thing can happen to you but I think it’s because people don’t openly talk about the subject. As a victim, you are humiliated and want to hide from others the fact that you’ve been scammed.”
So how did it happen? “In 2010, I was tutoring two children at their home in a gated domaine in Mouans-Sartoux. I was friendly with the family. The father, “Abe”, always presented himself as a financial expert and was never short of stories about his investment dealings. His wife “Anne”, would make me soup and we would talk about lots of different subjects together.”
When Abe learned that Lara had sold her apartment and consequently had some money in the bank, he put forward an investment opportunity. Lara told him she was not interested.
“I have always been very careful with my money but he worked on me, as these people do. They are very clever, very charming, always throwing in ‘I’m doing you a favour’. So I decided to make an investment, €100,000, on which he promised a high return.”
Supposedly he was exporting containers of Levi jeans to Russia and making huge profits. Initially, fifty-year-old Lara was paid monthly interest on her investment, and her confidence in Abe grew. So she invested again, and her returns were higher … until the interest payments suddenly stopped within less than a year after her original investment.
But this, incredibly, wasn’t the worst of Lara’s problems. She was diagnosed with a life-threatening disease and needed access to her funds. Abe was not forthcoming with her money.
Discussions, heartache and eventually threats ensued: “He said to me ‘Here’s a photo of my son who’s in the SAS, and no one would want to have a visit from him in the middle of the night, would they?’ ”
Lara took the threat to the police in Mougins, and then it hit her that she had been scammed. “I told the officer I couldn’t believe how stupid I’d been, how greedy. And he responded by saying they hear so many of these stories and this is what everybody says.”
Lara launched an official action de l’escroquerie (fraud) against Abe.
In the meanwhile, the abusive phone calls and emails from Abe continued. He was asked by the police nine times to come in for questioning but, in the end, he left the country and moved to Luxembourg.
“I know of two others who were scammed by this man but the police left it too long. Things work differently in France, and they weren’t able to seize his passport. I contacted the Luxembourg police who said they were ready to collaborate with their confrères in France but needed a warrant for his arrest. After a year the case was dropped in the Grasse courts because they couldn’t find Abe. At that point, I had spent €10,000 on legal fees and couldn’t afford to keep going, nor did I qualify for legal aid. I’ve gone as far as I can in the system without investing more time and money. I know of another scam victim who has spent a great deal of money on lawyers and is no further ahead.
“I’m extremely traumatised but I have to now focus on getting my life back on track.”
Trying to accept what happened, Lara began speaking with friends and contacts – business professionals, people who are highly educated, worldly, and well travelled – and it turned out that many had also been conned but kept silent because it’s such a shameful experience. “Some of them need the money and others don’t, but we all look back and wonder how we could have been so naïve.
“After hearing their stories, I didn’t feel as bad for falling into the physiological trap of the conman but it’s difficult to forgive myself and move on. There are days I can live with it, and there are days I cannot. My biggest fear is being old and poor and I now have no security for my retirement; Abe got a total of €290,000 from me. Today I can survive, I can work, but how I’m going to sort out my future I have no idea.
“Maybe I would have been more aware if people had shared their stories, like I’m trying to do with this article. The more we hear about the real life stories, the more we can be forewarned. You think that it can’t happen to you. But it can.”