Around 300 Portuguese businesses and the country’s entire banking sector have been revealed as the victims of a giant swindle involving seven million euros. So far, police have arrested 49 Italians and five Portuguese citizens in connection with the fraud, which has been linked to a branch of the Neapolitan Italian Mafia.
The swindle took place in the second half of 2002 and the first half of 2003. A police spokesman revealed that, during this time, an Italian crime syndicate was systematically falsifying cheques that Portuguese companies were sending to Italy via registered post, to pay for imported goods. The gang infiltrated various companies in Portugal, particularly targetting textile and clothing firms. They then placed high level financial staff in the firms concerned, who would inform their crime ‘bosses’ about the dispatch of cheques to Italy.
Armed with false identities, the thieves used sorting office workers from Rome and Milan to intercept the mail. Once in possession of the cheques, the organisation simply forged the endorsements, as if the addressees had signed them. If the cheques had a value lower than 4,000 or 5,000 euros, the organisation would change the sum to a higher figure using a near perfect technical process – so successfullythat it took less than a year for the gang to net seven million euros.
Aside from 300 companies, the swindle involved all major banks in Portugal, particularly BCP and Caixa Geral de Depósitos. One of the worst affected companies was Lameirinho, one of the biggest textile firms in the country, based in Vale do Ave in northern Portugal. But other businesses, based in Lisbon and Porto, were also badly affected.
Many of the suspects are currently being held in preventative detention on various charges, including falsification of documents, fiscal fraud and theft. Meanwhile, various Portuguese businessmen, arrested because the Italian criminals had given false identities in financial institutions, have now been exonerated. A police spokesman revealed that it was only thanks to the presence of security cameras installed in the banking institutions that these honest members of staff were acquitted and the real culprits caught.