A force of about 100 police and military police officers descended on a Kampong Speu commune hall to arrest three alleged scammers accused of swindling entire villages and held hostage by an angry mob camping around the hall for several days.
Previous attempts to extract the alleged scammers — who local authorities have said collected tens of millions of dollars from rural villagers while promising sky-high returns — had been turned back by the villagers.
Baset district’s Por Chamroeun commune police chief Phan Sophal said about 100 officers from provincial, district and commune stations arrived at around 10 a.m. on Wednesday.
A provincial official explained to the crowd that there was an arrest warrant for the three men inside, and that courts would try to recover the money.
“They were unhappy because they believed that when authorities took them to the court, they would not get back the money that they lost,” Sophal said.
“Some people were crying because all their money was in other people’s hands.”
It appeared that the accused scammers — five of whom were still at large — had spent the money on gold and diamonds from jeweler Dana Try as well as land and houses, he said.
A mother-of-two, who asked not to be named because she didn’t want the microfinance company to which she was indebted to know her plight, said she had lost $7,500. About $3,000 was her savings, and the rest of the sum came from her selling her necklaces and bracelets and using her land as collateral to borrow $3,000 from a microfinance lender.
“I hoped to get money so I could send my children to private school,” the woman said.
For the first couple of months, she was getting regular payments from the first $2,500 she had put in, she said.
“It was so easy, so we decided to borrow from the bank because I saw many had invested in it,” she said.
“Children were pushing their parents to sell their cows,” she said of others around her village. “Sell them to get money to invest … within three months you can get all your money back and it will make our lives better.”
She was concerned she would lose her home due to debt repayments. “Now it is higher than our ability to pay — now I have to walk one step and think one step,” she said.
Earlier this week, local authorities estimated that between $20 million and $100 million could have ended up in the Ponzi scheme, with as many as 3,000 villagers camping outside the commune hall at one point to hold the scammers hostage. The damage was mostly in Por Chamroeun, where seven out of 14 villages were hit hard, they said. But other villages across the province were also caught up in the swindle.
Por Chamroeun commune chief Hang Sambor said authorities tried to cool down the villagers’ anger and prevent them from using violence against the three people.
“They confessed,” Sambor said. “They said they gave money to their boss in Prey Veng but we are not sure whether their boss has received it or not. … We have seen them buying this and that thing like buying land and building houses.”
Sambor added that most of the victims he had spoken to said they borrowed from microfinance lenders to invest in the scam, with the majority putting down land titles as collateral.
“From now on, in the next half-month, we will know and see how many complaints there are from the MFIs. I am very concerned about this issue and I’m waiting to handle this issue,” he said. “This is rock-bottom for some people, who had only one or two cows and sold them.”
Provincial governor Vei Samnang said on Wednesday that authorities had been handling the situation for more than a week. The three suspects have been sent to the court, he added.
“If the people listen to the authorities’ education and instructions, no such thing would have happened,” he said.