PARIS (Reuters) - France is investigating what it says is a scam mounted by a French woman who sold thousands of Chileans kits to make “magic cheese” for French beauty products, an official said on Tuesday.
Gilberte Van Erpe, who was arrested and placed under investigation in France last year, is suspected of setting up a vast pyramid scheme, telling buyers the fermented mass produced by the kits could be sold to cosmetics companies in France.
A French investigator, examining magistrate Sylvie Gagnard, will fly to Chile to register the lawsuits of thousands of people who claim they were victimized, said Isabelle Montagne, a spokeswoman for the public prosecutor’s office.
“We call it the ‘case of the magic cheese’,” Montagne said.
“She swindled people, she abused their trust to make them believe that she could commercialize that material.”
Van Erpe, who is under custody in France and accused of fraud and money laundering, could not be reached for comment.
The spokeswoman said three other people also were arrested last year and placed under investigation for their role in the suspected fraud, conducted through a company called Fermex.
Media have reported that Van Erpe ran a similar scheme in Peru in 2003 to 2004 and then moved on to operate in Chile from 2004 to 2006.
Claiming that the fermented substance was all the rage in Paris as an ingredient for expensive moisturizers and shampoos, Van Erpe charged clients some 300 euros ($389) for the kits, which had a market value of about 3 euros, media said.
However, the product never made it to French cosmetics labs and most investors lost their money, the spokeswoman said.
Le Parisien newspaper said Van Erpe made about 30 million euros from her activities. It also said 5,000 Peruvians and 4,500 Chileans had filed lawsuits, but Montagne was unable to confirm that figure.
Editing by Michael Roddy