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CRIME

Frenchwoman jailed for ‘magic cheese’ scam

A French court on Tuesday jailed a woman, known as "Madame Yoghurt" for three years for conning thousands into buying a kit to make "magic cheese" that they could sell back to French cosmetics companies for use in luxury beauty products.

Frenchwoman jailed for 'magic cheese' scam
Judge Sylvie Gagnard (C), of the financial section of Paris court, listens to a Chilean lawyer before a hearing with victims of the fraud known as 'quesitos magicos' (magic cheese). Photo: Claudio San

Gilberte Van Erpe, 74, also received an additional three-year suspended sentence for her vast scam in which she told victims the product they could make at home was a prized ingredient used in creams favoured by celebrities such as Michael Jackson.

But the goop was worthless and the scam became one of the biggest pyramid schemes ever seen in South America.

The “case of the magic cheese”, as it is known in France, began in 2005 when the businesswoman dubbed “Madame Gil” held conferences around Chile urging people to become home producers of the fermented product.

Her company, Fermex Chile, had some 20 branches around Chile.

For €369 ($413) investors could buy a kit containing filters and a special powder which when mixed with milk and fermented, produced a small cheese pat they were told was highly sought after by the cosmetics industry.

Fermex promised that companies like French cosmetics giant L'Oreal would snap up the cheese for use in whitening creams and other products.

That is, after they were sold to a company in Congo-Brazzaville which would sell them on to France.

Victims were told they could double their initial investment in four months.

To entice the first victims, the kits were given away for free, and people were paid for their first batches of exported “magic cheese”, convincing them to reinvest their earnings.

The success of the business initiative spread rapidly and a Chilean investigation showed some 5,500 people were ensnared.

Many families mortgaged their houses or became heavily indebted to invest in the pyramid scheme, which raked in 14.5 million euros for the alleged scammers.

Like most pyramid schemes the scam relied on rapid growth, with initial investors telling their friends, neighbours and family about its profitability and getting them to join.

Victims were spurred to sign up friends and family with the promise of gifts and reward money.

One person received a cheque of 100 million pesos for their recruitment skills, that turned out to be fake, investigations showed.

As for the “magic cheese”, it never even left the country and a Chilean journalist later found tonnes of it rotting in a warehouse.

The scam collapsed in July 2006 and Van Erpe was arrested in the southern French city of Nice in 2008, but it was not possible to extradite her.

Chilean authorities thus pursued her in France where she stood trial alongside three alleged accomplices.

Van Erpe had allegedly used the same scheme to trick thousands of Peruvians a few years earlier.

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CRIME

French hospital cancels operations after cyberattack

A hospital complex in Versailles, near Paris, had to cancel operations and transfer some patients after being hit by a cyberattack over the weekend, France's health ministry said.

French hospital cancels operations after cyberattack

The Hospital Centre of Versailles – which consists of Andre-Mignot Hospital, Richaud Hospital and the Despagne Retirement Home – was affected by the hacking attempt, said the complex’s management.

The regional health agency (ARS) said the Andre-Mignot Hospital had cancelled operations, but was doing everything possible to keep walk-in services and consultations running.

Six patients had been transferred since Saturday evening – three from intensive care and three from the neonatal unit – said Health Minister Francois Braun, as he visited the hospital on Sunday evening. Others might follow, he added.

The cyberattack had led to a “total reorganisation of the hospital”, the minister added.

While the machines were still functioning in the intensive care unit, more people were needed to watch the screens as they were no longer working as part of a network, Braun said.

The Paris prosecutors’ office has opened a preliminary investigation into attempted extortion, as well as the access and maintenance of the state’s digital system. The hospital had also filed a formal complaint on Sunday.

For several months now, hospitals and health systems in France have been targeted with such cyberattacks.

According to Braun, “the health system suffers daily attacks” in France, but the “vast majority of these attempts are prevented”.

In August, the Corbeil-Essonnes hospital on the outskirts of Paris – which provides healthcare for nearly 700,000 residents – was targeted.

Its operations were severely disrupted for several weeks before returning to normal in mid-October.

On that occasion, the attack was followed by a demand for $10 million, subsequently lowered to one or two million.

The hackers had set a September 23rd deadline for the hospital to pay the ransom, after which they posted confidential data on patients and staff to the “dark web”.

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