The scam was simple, said Montgomery County investigators: Ana Betty Murillas, a smooth-talking huckster, lured area residents to "at-home shopping parties" in the belief they were getting free sets of expensive cookware in exchange for bringing in new customers.

In fact, investigators said, the partygoers, all non-English-speaking Latinos, unknowingly signed contracts obligating them to pay up to $3,700 each for a 24-piece Saladmaster pots-and-pans ensemble.

Yesterday, the county announced it had put an end to the year-long scam in a settlement agreement with Saladmaster and Nationwide Acceptance Corp., the company that provided financing for the purchases. The companies agreed to cancel the contracts with about 300 customers in the Washington area, releasing them from an estimated $500,000 in payment obligations.

"This settlement agreement should send a message, loud and clear, to anyone who thinks they can take advantage of our citizens -- particularly those who are struggling to overcome language barriers and are reluctant to report complaints," said County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D).

As for Murillas, an independent dealer for Saladmaster, county police are looking for her, but investigators say they believe she has fled to her native Colombia.

"She concocted a devious scheme," flimflamming victims into signing the contracts, said Consumer Affairs Division investigator Eric Friedman. "Then she sold the contracts to Nationwide and took off with the money."

The contracts averaged about $3,000, Friedman said, with Murillas keeping 80 percent of the amount financed. Most purchasers put little or no money down, he said, and were obligated to pay financing rates of up to 19 percent. Many have made few or no payments, Friedman said.

He said 100 to 150 of the victims lived in Montgomery County, with the rest scattered throughout the Washington area.

County officials said that from mid-1996 to mid-1997, Murillas finagled Latinos into holding shopping parties in their homes to sell Saladmaster products and recruit others to work for her business, called New Life Cooking Systems.

They said Murillas would tell consumers, in Spanish, that they were filling out employment applications, when in fact they were signing contracts, written in English, to buy pots and pans.

The scheme began to unravel earlier this year, officials said, when the Consumer Affairs Division started receiving complaints and initiated an investigation.

Under terms of the settlement, consumers who have not received or used their pots and pans are released from any financial obligation. Those who already are using them will pay $400, the cost of manufacturing the cookware.

The Consumer Affairs Division was able to negotiate the settlement with Nationwide and Saladmaster because of a Federal Trade Commission ruling that complaints against sales agents "are good against holders of the financing contract," Friedman said.

The two companies acknowledged no wrongdoing in the settlement. Just like the consumers, "they also felt victimized," said Friedman, "but we feel they should have monitored {Murillas} more closely." Friedman said Murillas, in her late thirties or early forties, had lived in Hughesville, in Charles County, and in Springfield.