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Portugal's Woes Drive Personal Bankruptcies

"I recall a family with a child that came in here the other day and they told me that they start out the month with four or five euros," Nunes said. "We hear these kinds of stories every day."

Caritas Portuguesa, a Catholic charity, reported this month that requests for help, including food aid, almost doubled last year to more than 95,000. And in January and February this year, requests were up 46.5 percent on last year. The needy now include architects and lawyers, it said.

Default, foreclosure and repossession are spreading at an alarming rate.

The tax authorities sold almost 28,500 properties last year to recoup tax debts, up from just over 27,000 in 2010. So far this year the seizures are occurring at an even faster rate, with almost 6,000 in the first five weeks. Annualized, that translates into nearly 36,000 for 2012.

Banks trying to offload heaps of returned property are increasingly turning to auction houses. Euroestates, one of the country's leading house auctioneers, says 90 percent of its customer base is banks. The number of auctions it holds has tripled since 2008, to almost 30 a year. In 2008 it auctioned about 600 properties; last year it sold some 2,000.

Luis Sequeira Fernandes, an attorney who runs one of Portugal's biggest law firms that collect debts for court-ordered judgments, says he is increasingly finding that debtors have no assets left to confiscate.

"I used to claw back around 60 percent (of money owed). Now it's about 30-40 percent," Sequeira Fernandes said.

Eviction procedures, representing about half the debts he tries to recoup, are becoming riskier. Sequeira Fernandes has had a gun pointed at him by an indignant homeowner and threats of violence aren't as rare as they used to be.

"People are getting desperate and much, much more aggressive than before," he says, even though Portugal hasn't seen any of the violent street protests witnessed in Greece.

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