Equity victims fight back

October 3rd, 2011
Story by Mireille Toddington | Coastrider

EUAN_ARMSTRONG_450An expat is taking Denmark’s biggest bank to court after it persuaded him to use his Spanish property as collateral in an equity release scheme – and cost him his home. Scot Euan Armstrong, 73, is fighting every step of the way after the scheme left him almost penniless with the bank trying to force him to sell his two million euro home to pay off debts.

The pensioner had joined the Danske Bank scheme after he was told it would provide him with a salary for life. The other incentive used was that the move would reduce any inheritance tax for his daughters, who were liable to pay Spain’s top rate of 34 per cent. Mr Armstrong claims that employees in the former Mijas office of the bank outlined a plan where Danske Bank was supposed to use €850,000 to invest in bonds, Swiss Francs and Euro with the ‘profits’ being used to pay off the mortgage. Meanwhile, a €150,000 lump sum would be given to him as part of the equity release deal. However things did not go to plan, and after the first year Mr Armstrong realised that the bank had actually lost him €18,000. Unfortunately, the losses did not stop there. Over the next five years, the scheme continued to lose money and in 2009 Mr Armstrong was told by an account manager in Luxembourg that he should sell his property and pay the bank back the €650,000 they had lost. When Mr Armstrong refused, Danske Bank issued a foreclosure on his house and also a repossession order through Coin court. This was due to take place in July of this year, fortunately, his lawyer stepped in and obtained a court ruling suspending the repossession. According to Antonio Flores of law firm Lawbird – which is also filing eight separate cases against various Nordic banks in a similar situation – it is actually illegal in Spain to indebt yourself in order to reduce your inheritance tax liability. Nonetheless, he estimates that hundreds of people fall victim to these schemes each year and cases in Spain currently span the Costa Blanca and the Costa del Sol. The lawyer believes that this type of product, peddled by unauthorised agents under the endorsement of supposedly reputable banks, is becoming more and more common and should be avoided by people at all costs.

Several clients of these banks, led by Euan Armstrong have now set up the Equity Release Victims Association (ERVA.es) to denounce these schemes with the appropriate Government offices, with the aim of attaining a decision ruling that these schemes are completely illegal. The official bodies contacted include: the Spanish Prosecution Service, the National Consumers Association, the Financial and Insurance regulators and the Ombudsman.

The crux of ERVA´s argument is why would hundreds of Spanish-based pensioners with their life-time savings buried in their retirement home, re-mortgage it to invest the proceeds with a foreign bank? Surely the answer has to be that it is the result of gross mis-selling

Euan Armstrong said: “This is a highly toxic product devised, marketed and sold by mostly Scandinavian banks to financially conservative pensioners and owners of unencumbered homes. These schemes threaten to cripple their health and well-being as there is no visible end to the situation they find themselves in, save for forceful and decisive legal and administrative action. The uniqueness of these schemes is nothing more than an alleged tax defrauding proposition: that by encumbering a home with a mortgage and investing the proceeds in bonds, stocks or life assurance policies, the would-be inheritors could reduce the exposure to inheritance tax.”

The Spanish Directorate General for Tax has confirmed on numerous occasions since 1999, that Luxembourg-based life assurance policies are subject to Spanish wealth and inheritance tax – and so are not exempt from inheritance tax as promised by the rogue sellers. This is much more than just false or deceptive advertising, it’s illegal and has also failed to gain clearance from insurance and financial regulators. Equity release schemes represent a complete departure from good banking practices by offering highly complex financial products on unintelligible contracts to pensioners who as less experienced, knowledgeable and sophisticated investors should be afforded the highest level of protection. Instead these huge-profit making banks have been allowed to steal their money.

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