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INVESTIGATION

Unete: the Spanish bitcoin scam that has claimed 22,000 victims

Currency, devised by Spaniard José Manuel Ramírez Marco, attracted €50 million

But investors have found that they are unable to get their money back

The creator of the ‘unete,’ José Manuel Ramírez Marco, in Dubai.

José Manuel Ramírez Marco had a dream: the unete, a digital currency that could be used to buy and sell things on the internet. It would be worth one US dollar, and serve as a way of avoiding the ups and downs of the currency market. Outside the control of any government or financial institution, it was launched in 2013.

Since then, 41-year-old Ramírez has convinced some 22,000 investors around the world to put €50 million into his scheme. The problem is that because the currency is digital, nobody can get their hands on it. A complex network of tax havens and frozen bank accounts is to blame, according to those close to this alleged fraud. More than 100 of the 6,000 Spaniards who bought into the scheme have already begun legal action.

More than 100 of the 6,000 Spaniards who bought into the scheme have already brought legal action

“I have 8,000 unetes that I cannot convert to euros,” says Carmen Ramírez, a pensioner from Córdoba.

“This is a pyramid scheme,” adds Pablo P, from Málaga.

“José Manuel told us he was setting up a unete bank, and we believed him,” says businessman Alain Tamellini, who bought €18,000 worth of the cyber currency.

The first stage in the process was converting euros to unetes. This involved a transfer to Union Business Online Ltd, located in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, a former British colony and now tax haven in the Caribbean. “His businesses handled up to €70 million,” says Adrián Trigo, a former partner of Ramírez.

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José Manuel Ramírez with his partner Pilar Otero.

Funds were then transferred to accounts in Malta, Romania and Latvia. Trigo says that up to €1.5 million was being paid into Ramírez’s accounts every day at one point. “He told me that he was created a holding in Switzerland to protect the money,” says another former employee who learned the ins and outs of the business. EL PAÍS has tried to contact Ramírez, who is reported to be living outside Spain, according to various sources.

The unete collapsed in April 2014 when Latvian bank Rietumu froze Ramírez’s accounts as part of an investigation into money laundering. He told investors that some Russian clients had been misusing the currency, which had set off alarms in Latvia. Rietumu has declined to talk to EL PAÍS. The unete is now worthless.

Originally from Valencia, Ramírez started out in the Málaga resort town of Torremolinos in the 1980s, working in a nightclub. “He spent all the time glued to a computer. He thought he was going to get rich,” says his former boss, Alain Tamellini. After a period in London, Ramírez focused on investment schemes based in Panama. His name is linked to System World Investment, which operated under the brand name Dextraplus. Spain’s CNMV markets watchdog described Dextraplus in March 2009 as “a financial scam,” mentioning Ramírez by name.

Ramírez was working in Panama with a company called Finanzas Forex, owned by Germán Cardona, who was sent to prison in March 2011 for setting up a pyramid scheme that scammed around €300 million from 100,000 investors from all over the world.

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Ramírez and Otero in Milan's Galleria Vittorio Emanuele.

Ramírez got the unete idea from Sergey Mavrodi, a Russian entrepreneur who set up a scheme in the 1990s that ruined thousands of small investors. “José Manuel was obsessed with Mavrodi,” says one former collaborator, adding that his former boss was constantly trying to work out how to set up a bank, an alternative financial system, and even a city, to be called Unetecity.

To publicize his business, Ramírez posted videos on YouTube, as well as organizing presentations. “We are a sound company. Our holding was set up in 2008,” he would tell investors. The Spanish business registry shows that Ramírez set up Union Business Online in the small Málaga seaside town of Rincón de la Victoria with Pilar Otero. The company has yet to have its books audited.

Ramírez’s strategy was to expand internationally. He said he had set up a bank in Dubai, and opened offices in a business center in Malta. A receptionist there said last week that it has no record of Ramírez.

Talking to some of Ramírez’s investors it becomes clear that he is a charismatic figure. “He is a wonderful person. I love him,” says Gloria, based in Torremolinos, who has invested €15,000 in the unete.

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A children’s charity in Peru

José Manuel Ramírez with one of the girls from the shelter in Arequipa, Peru.

Ramírez also set up a charity, called the Unetenet Foundation, which supposedly worked with a refuge for sexually abused children in Arequipa, Peru.

He would encourage investors to give unetes to the children’s home, which is run by an evangelical church. Last year, he raised around $400,000, of which only $35,000 went to the charity, according to Darío Quintana Juárez, the refuge’s director.

He says the Unetenet Foundation organized a campaign in 2013 to raise funds to buy a bus for the refuge. Around $60,000 was handed over, but the vehicle never arrived, he says.

Meanwhile, Ramírez went on encouraging his investors to donate to the foundation. “The donation button works. You just have to give whatever your heart tells you so that these children are able to eat. Please, help the children!” he wrote on his Facebook page in 2014. The head of the children’s home says Ramírez told him the foundation was registered in Spain, but the Culture Ministry says it has no record of it.