Embezzled in Uruguay

In 2014 we informed our readers that our Uruguay bank account had been embezzled and that we would tell you more about it after it was settled. Not all of our readers have forgotten because someone reminds us now and then. We were hesitant to publish this for a while and you will soon understand the reason. There is sadness here for more people than just us as you will see.

When we had not been in Uruguay very long we met a woman who was working for a friend of ours. We had opportunity to observe her work. In one instance we even attended a real estate closing where she examined each of the documents before our friend signed them to be sure that they said what she was told they said. This woman was very competent and the closing went off just fine.

Later we all went to lunch together and this woman told us her story. She was a single mother, struggling to support two children. This editor was once a single mom too, widowed early with two young children  and a husband with no insurance because of a preexisting condition. So we were so sympathetic with her situation.

That woman was Marcela Ponce.

I told Marcela that I was going to help her build the business that she needed to provide for her children. And I did. Some of you who are reading this went to her on our recommendation.

A year or so later, after we moved to Buenos Aires, we were having lunch in Uruguay and I mentioned a banking inconvenience since we had moved to Buenos Aires and she said it could all be handled easily, that she was good friends with someone at the bank who spoke good English and if I would meet her at the Atlantida bank, she would introduce me to him and he would explain how they could help me.

So I did. He explained in English what they could do, drew up a paper for me. She read and approved the paper that I signed–since it was in Spanish. I could read that myself today–but not then. He did verify for me that Marcela would not be on the account and could not take money out. Later, under questioning, he blamed the language and said he was only a Level I in English and apparently did not understand what he was saying. Whether he knew what he was telling me, of course we don’t know.

Nothing in the bank information ever alarmed me. Nothing that I downloaded ever showed her name. I would think if someone were on the account it would show both names. It didn’t. It only indicated mine.

I had a small peso account that I used to pay our expenses in Uruguay. Foolishly since I had a small peso account, I only paid attention to the dollar account once a month. On occasion when I returned to Uruguay I found the peso account much lower than I thought I remembered but I would assume that I was just wrong. The dollar account always was exactly what it should be.

But I learned in 2014 that she was tapping the peso account from the very first day that I signed the paper in the bank. I didn’t detect a problem in the bank for two years. It was small amounts each time.

At Four Flags Journal we do recommend people to assist readers who ask. We will drop a recommended person even for repeatedly ignoring emails. We don’t ask for a commission on our recommendations and when we talk to a lawyer, for example, and they ask what percentage we want we always say all we want is for our people to be happy. And we do want that and expect that, and we have some good attorneys that we really appreciate. But if there are problems, and no one tells us, we have no way to know.

We continued to send clients to Marcela for the next two years. As far as we could tell, everyone was happy.

However, we received one letter from an enraged reader who claimed that Marcela had misled her as an excuse to charge her more money than the agreed amount, that she had learned that what Marcela told her had been untrue but she would not give me details nor would she allow me to try to work things out. She was afraid if I confronted Marcela that Marcela might sabotage her residency process.

That was just her fear and of course we would keep a confidence but we have never found out what that was about but with that letter we dropped Marcela. Normally we would not do that on one complaint that we were not allowed to check, but her letter had a ring of truth to it. We couldn’t take a chance.

At that time Marcela was already drawing small amounts from our peso account but we still did not realize it. We still had no idea she was on the account.

We tell you this story only in the hope that you will be warned. Be careful who you trust. And if we recommend someone, the only way we will know anything is wrong is if someone tells us. We also like to hear good reports. If you had good experiences with our recommendations, that helps us too.

Based on this experience, I do NOT believe you can trust all individual bank employees. I think the national bank itself is trustworthy in Uruguay, but you can have bad people anywhere. I have talked with other expats who are doing the same thing that I did. They also do not keep track of their peso account. Had I caught it while she was only tapping the peso account, it would have saved me several thousand dollars.

The first clue I had that there was a problem with my account was in December 2013. Some of you will remember I was in Chile. As usual, near the end of the month, I went online to do routine checks and noticed many extractions from the dollar account, some the maximum ATM withdrawal several times a day. This was the first she hit the dollar account.

I called the bank from Chile and asked what were all these deductions and they said they are withdrawals. I said “By WHOM? I am in Chile!” They didn’t know but I blocked the account and returned immediately to Buenos Aires. The bank officer that I spoke with asked me to go and try to withdraw with my card just so they could verify that I was not in Uruguay. I did. To my relief, it was blocked.

It was in Buenos Aires that I learned “there is another person on your account.” I said how could that be. No one else is on my account and nothing indicates that. They said, “She is inside the account'” I still don’t understand how someone can be “inside the account” and not show up anywhere. There was absolutely nothing on the account to indicate to us that someone else was on it. Then they said, “Do you know Marcela Ponce?” Turned out I had put her on the account, all unknowing, when I signed the paper that day at the bank.

I had known Marcela for several years by then. I crossed the river to Uruguay and my friend and I went to see Marcela in her home. I asked her if she had taken money and she said No, I would never do that, my business, my children, I would never do that. I said, “Would you be willing to write a statement to that effect that I can take to the bank?” She said yes, and she did and my friend signed it as witness. She so insisted that she took nothing that I offered to go to the bank together, that we would demand together to see their evidence, and that I would help her to defend herself if she indeed was not guilty. She said no, she didn’t want to go to the bank.

Marcela explained to me that I would never find out who took the money, that the Uruguay banking system was so inefficient that they would not know who took the money out, that if anyone else had a card (which the bank claimed that she had applied and gotten a debit card) they just find one laying around and I just would never find out. I think she was really convinced that that was true.

After seeing Marcela, we went back to the bank at Punta Carretas in Montevideo, told them that Marcela denied the charge and what she said about the banking system. The assistant manager at the Punta Carretas bank, where our account was held, took us into the back office to a computer there to demonstrate that they knew the number of each card, who used it and where it was used. Some of the withdrawals were even taken over the counter in the Atlantida bank. They had it all, plus videos of Marcela withdrawing the money.

Once I knew that and the word was out, so many people told me stories where they felt they had been defrauded as well, by Marcela. I have no idea why no one ever told us. I encourage anyone who is cheated or misused by anyone that we recommend, tell us. First we will try to resolve it. And I am confident that we always could resolve it. But we will also keep confidence if asked to do so.

The Canalones police investigated the embezzlement, got information from the bank and picked Marcela up for questioning. They also called in the banker for questioning. The police called me in to respond as they questioned him and he insisted he was not a party to it.

As I understand the law in Uruguay, Uruguay is a civil law country, unlike the U.S. which is common law. In the U.S,. they would look at the circumstances and if they believed the banker was involved he would have been charged. But as we understand civil law, you really have to have something on paper or videos or some definite, concrete evidence. My testimony and Marcela’s was not sufficient to find him guilty. Marcela did claim it wasn’t her, which would leave him, but as we understand the law, the problem was that they had concrete evidence against her but not on him.

Marcela lived in Atlantida for years, claimed this man was her friend and when she took me to his desk and introduced me to him, she introduced him by his nickname.

The Canalones police appeared to me to be very thorough in prosecuting the case and, as far as I could tell, did a good job. They seemed to really want to see justice done. We were not happy, however, with Atlantida bank.  One would think that a bank manager would want to know if there were a chance that one of their employees might be involved in embezzling. We did not find that attitude in the Atlantida manager. Here is the story.

The assistant manager at Punta Carretas, in Montevideo, first ordered all the records be sent from Atlantida having to do with my transaction there with Marcela and her banking friend. I was to return to Montevideo later and see them.

Two weeks later we went back and the assistant manager told us she had talked to the manager at Atlantida and they decided to have us go there instead, and that they were waiting for me to come. She gave me the manager’s name and phone number to call. She said, ” I have told the manager there everything about this, he knows everything and I don’t know what they are going to do but they want you to go there.”

We called Atlantida and talked with the manager and made arrangement to see him–before the trial came up. We made the one and a half hour trip to Atlantida. When we arrived, again with a witness along in case we needed to verify anything later, and asked to see the manager, the young man came back out and said the manager was not going to see me but he had someone else for me to talk to, and he ushered us right to the very man the manager knew we were accusing.

We did talk to this employee and he claimed he never heard of any Marcela Ponce, was not her friend, and did not remember anything about the transaction. He said the papers had all been sent to Punta Carretas and there was nothing for me to see. We then returned to Punta Carretas where we were told, “He knows where those papers are and they are not here.”

When the process of investigation of Marcela and the bank employee was under way, the detective in Canalones told us he had spoken by phone with the bank manager about calling in his employee and the manager told the police that employee no longer worked at that bank so they could not call him in.

During the process, the police asked me to stop at the Atlantida bank to pick up envelopes from the bank manager on our way to Canalones, which we did. When we went into the bank, lo and behold, there we caught sight of Marcela’s banker friend in the bank. When we went into the manager’s office to pick up the envelopes we decided to play along and ask. in Spanish, if it was true that the accused employee was no longer working at the bank. He said “No, he is not here any more.” I said, “Where did he go. Is he is La Palorma?” (I knew he has a house at La Paloma.) The manager said  “Yes he went to La Paloma.”

So of course I told the detective in Canalones that he was definitely still at the bank unless he had a twin! So it must have been a surprise when he found himself required to appear for questioning. Incidentally the bank manager came with him to court.

Of the two, only Marcela was found guilty. She was sentenced and the last time I saw her, sadly she was in  handcuffs. She was in jail for a short time and then I was told that she was sent from jail to the hospital because of pancreatitis and that she had died.

This woman has children that are grown but young and I can only imagine how hard this was for them and we don’t want to cause them more pain. We were incensed to learn that the Uruguay bank takes no responsibility for loss to clients caused by their employees. But a United States attorney told us that same situation exists in the United States. The law protects the bank and you have to file suit for damages against the employee personally and the bank itself is immune..

We are told that we have grounds for a civil suit against Marcela’s estate but we’ve had enough. We are not going to pursue that. For us this is all sad. Sad if Marcela has died, sad for her children, and sad that Marcela could damage people who genuinely cared about her and her family and did what we could to help her. That’s a hard thing for us to understand. The total embezzlement, according to the Punta Carretas bank records, was $12,000 US.

I think that this is not a common occurrence in Uruguay. If anyone else has had a similar experience I hope you will be in touch. I feel sure you can see errors on my part and correct them yourself.  I believe this was a special situation, at least I hope so. One of our Argentina mentors, a street-smart, knowledgeable businessman, born and raised in Argentina, commented, “I can’t believe you Americans come down here and go to banks and sign things you can’t read.” I said, “You mean you wouldn’t trust a bank employee?” To which he replied, “No!”  In the U.S., under common law, things might have been different, but perhaps not. But the penalties for being a party to something like this are likely to be huge. Therefore, in the U.S. most of the corruption is not at the lower levels and so many of us come to South America being much too trusting–for that reason, I think.

We don’t want to discourage any of you from living here but we report the truth as we see it. Our commitment is to present a picture as honestly as we can. Navigating here is not difficult, You just need to be aware.

We have learned costly and valuable and personally painful lessons and hope that relating it will be valuable education for you–before the fact.