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Scams Snag People New To Capitalism

After pouring her hard-earned life savings into a failed pyramid scheme, Vjollca Serjani, along with thousands of other Albanians, is left with nothing except enmity for a government that once trumpeted the schemes as a key to boosting one of Europe's poorest nations.

Across Eastern Europe, such high-risk pyramid schemes have cost investors billions of dollars.

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Albanians are only the latest to be burned by high-risk investments in Eastern Europe's trial-by-fire transition to capitalism.

With advertised monthly interest rates of 30 to 100 percent, it appeared as though everyone was investing in Albania's pyramid schemes. Many even chastised those who weren't buying in.

"The government allowed them, so we didn't ask questions," says Ms. Serjani, who is among the thousands demonstrating for compensation this week in this southern port city. "Now I know there's no such thing as easy money."

The typical pyramid scheme is an unregulated, bank-like institution that collects hard-currency deposits and offers interest rates far exceeding those in retail banks. (At one point in 1993, a Romanian scheme was boasting 800-percent returns.) Those who get in early reap the deposits of later comers. The scam hits saturation when the pool of new depositors dries up. Then comes the collapse, when returns cease to be paid.

Hardest hit have been poorer countries such as Russia, Romania, and Bulgaria, where many are frantic to taste the good life but have few legitimate avenues to do so.

Now most, like Serjani, blame the government for their losses.

"It's the classical behavior in which people put their money in and then expect the government to bail them out," says Fabian Schmidt, an expert on Albania with the Open Media Research Institute in Prague. "It proves a not-very-good understanding of democracy."

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But the pyramid schemes have proved simply too tempting to pass up. Most schemes in Eastern Europe doled out huge payoffs early on. Word of their success then ricocheted and sucked in vast numbers of new investors, allowing the schemes to last much longer than the hit-and-run variety usually found in the West.

In Albania, as years passed, even some of the more skeptical became convinced. Not wanting to be left out, they prolonged the scam by infusing it with fresh cash. Yet at the core of the hysteria was more naivet than avarice.

Many turned to pyramid schemes to shelter their money from inflation, which in some countries has soared from 200 to 300 percent annually, rendering other savings worthless. In Albania, where its entire industrial sector was shuttered in 1992, the high returns became a monthly source of income and often a disincentive to find work. For other Eastern Europeans, the schemes were a tolerable risk in light of the scarcity of genuine investment opportunities.

But none of these schemes, say some critics, could have succeeded with out government complicity. In each high-profile case of pyramid schemes, there has been at least a whiff of collusion. The schemes are well-publicized, their masterminds often photographed with prominent state and local officials.

In Albania, several of the multi-million-dollar schemes lent their support to the ruling Democratic Party in last year's parliamentary and local elections. And with so many Albanians profiting from the schemes during an election year, the government had little interest in warning the public of the impending crash.

To date, no country has investigated the link between governments and the schemes, and critics point to a dearth of fraud-related legislation.

Pyramid schemes are not the exclusive domain of Eastern Europe. Also known as "ponzi schemes" - named after Italian-born Charles Ponzi, who hatched the first such scam in Boston in 1920 - they still ensnare unwary Americans. In August, it was revealed that 17,000 Floridians had been duped into paying $200 for a special club membership that enabled them to buy certain mail-order products and to sell memberships to others.

With years of experience behind them, Western governments and financial institutions have tried to steer their former Soviet-bloc adversaries away from potential pitfalls. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank warned Albania several times last year that nearly one-third of all personal savings was being socked away in 10 different ponzis. But the schemes had already taken on a life of their own. An estimated three-quarters of all Albanians were reportedly involved.

For its part, the World Bank is resisting the I-told-you-so impulse. It intends to help pick up the pieces with additional loans for various infrastructure projects. "We're not in the business of finger pointing," says Carlos Elbert, the World Bank representative in Albania.

It remains to be seen how quickly Eastern Europeans will learn from their mistakes. When Poland was struck early in the transition by a spate of ponzis, it responded by enacting tighter banking regulations. But its neighbors have been less responsive.

The Albanian government still has not acted and is instead discussing how to prevent the collapse of several more large pyramid schemes.

The bottom line, say some observers, is not to throw legislation at every new problem, but to somehow effect a change in mentality.

"These [scandals] are the cost of the transition," says Anna Fornalczyk, the former head of Poland's antimonopoly office. "Six years ago, our people didn't know anything about free markets, but we're learning every day."

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