How does it feel to realize you’ve been conned out of €1.8 million, or $2 million? Günther Steinberger (name changed to protect his privacy) does recall one thing: He didn’t want to believe it until it was all too late.
“For a full year, I was certain I had done a deal with Barclays Bank,” he said. That was guaranteed by the broker of the deal. On paper at least.
Antonio Giancola was the man who tempted the German millionaire into this apparent “dream deal.” Mr. Giancola is Swiss, 37 years old and a football scout. Or so he claims.
Financial advice, says his homepage, is just an occasional interest. But he held out a deal which was close to irresistible for many millionaires: up to 36 percent returns every six months.
According to research carried out by Handelsblatt, Mr. Giancola attracted some €30 million in this way. More than two dozen investors fell for the trick.
Almost none of that money is left.
Many seasoned professionals had their money taken – no small feat. In their jobs as lawyers, directors or entrepreneurs, they are well used to sniffing out dodgy deals. With new business, they would normally rather recheck things three and four times over rather than sign off on a sketchy investment.
Nonetheless, plenty of wealthy Germans fell for Mr. Giancola’s schtick.
“I had a bad feeling from the start. But in the Barclays office, I thought 'What could go wrong inside a bank?'”
Mr. Giancola is currently in pre-trial custody in eastern Switzerland, not far from the Liechtenstein border. Handelsblatt has seen company documents, many victim statements, as well as research material compiled by a private investigator. Folders full of material paint a portrait of a man losing touch with reality. But a man who did not act alone.
His hobby suggests someone living life to the full. Until early 2015, Mr. Giancola drove in the GT3 Porsche Cup: it costs half a million euro just to get on the starting grid. In videos on his YouTube channel, Mr. Giancola regularly claimed to be a top football scout for Italian clubs. A man, you are led to believe, who wouldn’t need to make money on financial side-deals.
So how did a hobby race-car driver persuade experienced German businessmen to hand over their entire fortunes? By persuading them it was absolutely secure.
It worked like this: Mr. Giancola would invite his clients to an Italian branch of the British bank Barclays, located in Saronno, near Milan. It was a supremely neat and orderly place: located on the central square, with many large windows which let passers-by look into the bank. Two counters, comfy seats for consultations. The manager’s office toward the back, inside a glass cube. Everything open and transparent, it seemed.
Mr. Giancola presented himself as a serious businessman, said Klaus Nieding, a prominent Frankfurt lawyer who is representing many of the victims in the case.
“Before the contracts were signed, there would be a personal meeting,” Mr. Nieding said. Mr. Giancola always explained in detail how returns were to be generated. “He seemed like a trustworthy person,” said the lawyer.
Mr. Nieding said he’s seen a lot in his career, but fake contracts signed by imposters inside a real bank branch? That’s something new. “That takes some chutzpah,” he said.
When Mr. Giancola brought his clients to Barclays, they were welcomed by the local bank manager and shown to a meeting room, where they quickly got down to business. For Mr. Steinberger, this meant investing €650,000. Mr. Giancola spoke English with a thick Italian accent, but his figures were crystal clear: 3–6 percent growth, per month. Mr. Steinberger’s eyes widened.
The scam’s cover story went like this: Mr. Giancola claimed to offer his clients privileged access to Barclays’ “internal trades.” The bank, he said, made their own investments in highly-speculative trades, increasing their returns greatly. Not usually available for normal investors, but perhaps Mr. Giancola could find a way…
“It is very easy to fake a bank guarantee — you do an image search, then Photoshop it.”
After a few minutes, a man calling himself Giovanni Trappani would join the group. Dark suit, black tie. He would introduce himself as a director of Barclays Milan subsidiary. He spoke better Italian than English and said he was only there for the contract signing. “To ensure everything is done properly,” he said in heavily accented English, Mr. Steinberger recalled.
“I had a bad feeling from the start,” Mr. Steinberger said. But when Mr. Giancola said they would seal the deal in a Barclays office, his reservations vanished. “What could go wrong inside a bank?” he asked.
At the counters, the bank employees quietly continued their work as Mr. Giancola repeated his big claim: “Barclays will pay you 3 percent interest, per month!”
This worked at first. Mr. Steinberger received his interest, transferred from a Barclays account. Did he become suspicious?
“There were very juicy returns. We had no doubts!” he said. Things continued like this for about a year: “I increased my investment to €1.8 million,” he added, followed by a long pause.
Another victim, Peter von Landschreiber (name also changed), had a similar experience. A top lawyer employed with a leading German firm, he gave Mr. Giancola €300,000. He wanted to use the money, with returns compounded, to care for his very sick father. A friend told Mr. von Landschreiber about Mr. Giancola, who offered him 1.5 percent per month, 18 percent per a year. He jumped at the deal.
After a few weeks, he grew concerned and sent a message to Barclays. He received a reply from Paul Manny, supposedly a Barclays Business Services Advisor, who promised to “personally investigate and make sure everything is cleared up to your satisfaction.”
This was also part of the scam, said Mr. Nieding, the lawyer: “Even when the payments fell through, they were able to assuage people’s fears.”
Mr. Manny invited Mr. von Landschreiber to a personal meeting in the Barclays branch in Camden Town, London. There, Mr. Manny explained in detail how the money was being invested. In the end, the German investor was given security guarantees: a bank guarantee from UBS Bank in Zurich, and a bankers’ check drawn on Barclays.
What remained opaque was Barclays’ role in all this. The detectives suspected some kind of collaborator inside Barclays, who perhaps put rooms in the bank at the disposal of the con men.
When Mr. von Landschreiber tried to cash the check in June 2015, it was returned — insufficient funds. “It was clear what that meant,” said the deceived investor.
Unfortunately, these days it is all too easy to fake a bank guarantee. “You just do an image search on the Internet,” said Mr. Nieding. The rest is Photoshop. “Unfortunately, I have seen many of these over the years,” he added.
After the meeting in London, Paul Manny continued to send emails to explain any delays in payment. Emails that turned out not to be sent from a Barclays server. Mr. Landschreiber telephoned Mr. Giancola. More excuses.
It later turned out that Macom, one of Mr. Giancola’s many companies, had genuinely had a Barclays account in Saronno, but it was closed in August 2013. The checks were real, but had long since expired.
Another customer who inquired, this time in November 2014, received a page-long email from Mr. Giancola. He emphasized that he only acted in his customers’ interests, not his own, and said they should learn to think long-term. He would happily have documents notarized, he said, in return for a payment of €3,000. Concerns about missing payments were brushed aside.
Ultimately, a number of victims turned to Mr. Nieding and to Frankfurt private investigators KDM. Their discoveries about Mr. Giancola were breathtaking, as the contours of his scam began to appear.
But what remained opaque was Barclays’ role in all this. The detectives suspected some kind of collaborator inside Barclays, who perhaps put rooms in the bank at the disposal of the con men.
If the case comes to court, close attention will be played to the bank’s role. It is Barclays’ responsibility to check if unauthorized people are using its facilities. In the course of KDM’s research, Barclays asserted that all the documents produced by Mr. Giancola were clearly fraudulent, quite unlike the real thing.
Handelsblatt sent a series of questions on the case to Barclays in London, but, after some weeks’ reflection, they decided not to comment.
If it turns out the bank knew about dodgy deals but did nothing, or that they were somehow negligent in oversight, then they could be liable, warned Mr. Nieding. The use of fake Barclays guarantees and checks could be one powerful line of inquiry.
“The bank should have stepped in earlier,” he said. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Giancola will come clean on how he managed to use Barclays’ bank branches for his crime. If he does, his victims will be following the story with interest. And so will Barclays.