Neighbors lose savings after ‘gye’ lady absconds

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Neighbors lose savings after ‘gye’ lady absconds

Mrs. Lee, 62, is a native of Noryangjin-dong, southwestern Seoul. She’s been a good neighbor in her area for decades, and friends trusted her with their money. She was the local “gye” whiz. Gye is a kind of traditional savings fund popular among Korean women, who chip into a kitty on a monthly basis and get a big lump sum payout in turns. Mrs. Lee was the person who invested the money and distributed the proceeds.

Her husband Mr. Yang, 68, had his own role in his wife’s gye groups as he worked at the local branch of the Community Credit Cooperative for 20 years. Yang once was an executive-level official in his office.

Since 2009, Lee maintained nine separate accounts in the Community Credit Cooperative. Each account had the gye contributions of about 36 of Lee’s friends and neighbors. On average, each member gave Lee 860,000 won ($773) to 1.93 million won per month.

Last July 18, however, the kindly and benevolent Lee disappeared with the neighborhood golden geese, the gye funds of more than 43 neighbors. She got away with about 4.6 billion won. One of the neighbors had deposited as much as 500 million won.

“Lee had always assured her neighbors that she could never go bankrupt even though she promised to give higher annual yields than banks offer,” said a spokesman of the Dongjak Police Precinct in southwestern Seoul, which is investigating the case.

“One of my friends introduced her to me 30 years ago and I have deposited large sums of money ever since,” a neighbor surnamed Doh, 70, said. “Five people - my two daughters, two relatives and myself - lost about 1 billion won.”

“I haven’t even dared to tell my husband about this yet,” a 63-year-old neighbor surnamed Baek said. “Some people didn’t even admit they were victims to the police because they were afraid of their husbands finding out.”

After the number of complaints piled up, the Dongjak police formed an investigation team in February. They seized bank accounts owned by Lee and her family and made 18 raids, including on certain hospitals where Lee may have been hiding.

The police knew that Lee and Yang had chronic illnesses for which they needed to go to the hospital. They tracked Yang when he made a visit to a hospital in Seoul and followed him back to a secret dwelling in Jinju, South Gyeongsang, on Monday.

The police said they found the couple in a studio flat with the barest essentials: a pair of rice bowls, a rice pot and blankets. The couple told the police they had been moving to a new place every three months.

“We had 1 billion won in debt due to the IMF crisis [of the late 1990s],” Lee told the police in questioning.



By Lee Jeong-bong [sakwon80@joongang.co.kr]

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