Dozens of Cuban immigrants say they trusted Yamila Salvia because they had known her for years from their hometown on the island or their neighborhood in Hialeah.
They didn't hesitate to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars — their life savings in some instances — in her purported business enterprise: buying discounted bulk airline tickets to Cuba and then reselling them at a profit with promised interest payments as high as 12 to 20 percent. In the end, the investors say they never got a dime back from Salvia, who authorities say even used their credit cards as part of the “Ponzi scheme.”
After Salvia was reported to the Hialeah Police Department, U.S. Homeland Security Investigations arrested the 38-year-old woman last week. And now federal prosecutors are seeking a court order on Wednesday to hold her behind bars while she awaits trial on fraud charges. If released, they fear she would flee to her native Cuba — following the footsteps of many Medicare scammers.
Salvia, who was appointed a federal public defender by a magistrate judge on Friday because she cannot pay for a lawyer, is portrayed in a criminal complaint as being the mastermind of a so-called affinity crime. She is accused of preying on longtime friends and other relatively new Cuban immigrants who say they were duped by her promise of profits over the past year.
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The 23 victims who contacted Hialeah police earlier this month say they lost at least $417,000 in Salvia’s alleged investment scam, according to an affidavit filed by prosecutor Francisco Maderal. “Law enforcement is aware of no victim who was repaid or returned their original investment with Salvia,” the affidavit said.
Pedro Ramos said he lost $25,000.
“She was recommended to me by my co-worker, who is like family to me,” Ramos told el Nuevo Herald.
Last year, Ramos said that he and his wife, Eugenia, made a series of investments at a rising rate of return, with Salvia recommending that their profits be reinvested each time. But in January, he said, Salvia stopped making payments.
“We began calling her, but there was always a story, a lie,” Ramos said on Tuesday. “We concluded she had swindled us.”
Many of the victims said they not only gave Salvia their money but also pooled their life savings with other family members and close friends. Some investors, lacking cash, said they were convinced by Salvia to give her their credit cards for her personal use — with the promise that she would apply the charged amounts to their investments in the purported plane-ticket scheme.
Salvia, who was originally from the Holguin province in eastern Cuba, convinced all of the victims to reinvest their interest payments rather than receive their profits, according to the affidavit.
In late 2015, the “victims grew suspicious of Salvia’s investment scheme and began to seek her out at her residence in Hialeah after Salvia ceased making payments,” the affidavit said. “The victims, some of whom were previously unaware of each other, began to interact and share their stories with each other as a result of encounters at Salvia’s residence.”
The victims, identified in the affidavit as Nos. 1-23, each gave similar accounts to investigators.
Among them: a 22-year-old Hialeah man who works at Miami International Airport and came to know Salvia through a family member who is her neighbor. Last year, the man, described as Victim No. 6, invested a total of $35,000 by using not only his own money but also $9,000 rounded up from friends and $4,000 in “credits.”
Homeland Security agents discovered that last fall, Salvia made the following charges on the man’s credit card: $2,000 at a University of Miami medical clinic, $169.54 at a Wal-Mart in Hialeah Gardens, $4,498.76 at a South Miami pharmacy, and $513.92 at Va Cuba in Hialeah.
Agents said that when they asked about another victim’s dealings with her, Salvia lied to them following her arrest on Thursday.
While Salvia’s alleged Ponzi scheme of brokering airline tickets to Cuba may be a first in South Florida, financial investment scams have run rampant in the region over the past decade.
Among the most notorious in Miami-Dade: Jeweler Luis Felipe Pérez served 4 1/2 years in prison after pleading guilty to defraduing dozens of people — including two Hialeah mayors — who loaned him a total of $40 million to invest in his precious gems business.
Pérez, known as “Felipito,” was released from prison in December 2014 after his prison term was cut in half for cooperating with federal prosecutors against others involved in his Ponzi scheme.
El Nuevo Herald staff writer Enrique Flor contributed to this report.