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Brazil probes rumor that set off panic run on state bank

People wait in line at a branch of Bradesco bank, inside a Casas Bahia store in Sao Paulo February 18, 2013. REUTERS/ Nacho Doce
People wait in line at a branch of Bradesco bank, inside a Casas Bahia store in Sao Paulo February 18, 2013. REUTERS/ Nacho Doce

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said on Monday she ordered the Federal Police to investigate the source of a rumor that sent thousands of poor Brazilians running to state bank branches seeking payment of a monthly family stipend.

A rumor that payments of the Bolsa Familia program would be ended led crowds to line up over the weekend at branches of the Caixa Economica Federal government bank to get their money. The rumor spread by word of mouth and cellphone text messages.

Angry beneficiaries smashed glass doors and automatic teller machines in some branches on Saturday in a surprising outburst that reminded Brazilians of chaotic scenes in crowded banks during financial crises two decades ago before Brazil stabilized its economy.

The program of cash transfers to families on the condition they send their children to school and get them vaccinated has helped lift 30 million Brazilians from poverty over a decade.

Brazil's social policy has helped maintained widespread support for Rousseff's ruling Workers' Party and is a key platform in her re-election plans next year. Reacting quickly, her government allowed stipends scheduled for later this month to be paid out at ATM's over the weekend to stop the panic.

"This government money is sacred. We guarantee these payments. We will not give up the Bolsa Familia," Rousseff vowed in a speech at a shipyard. She called the rumor "inhuman."

"We have put the Federal Police on the case to find out who started this rumor that was aimed at unsettling Brazilians who have been rising from extreme poverty for 10 years," she said.

Caixa Economica Vice President José Urbano Duarte said close to 1 million families got their Bolsa Familia cash grant this weekend. The rumors caused panic lines at bank branches in 12 of Brazil's 26 states, mainly in the poor Northeast of the country, despite government assurances that the rumor was false.

About 50 million Brazilian, almost one-quarter of the South American country's population, benefit from the program which pays out a minimum of 70 reais ($34.42) a month to qualifying families.

Brazil's deteriorating fiscal situation and heavy tax burden have led economists to advocate cuts in public spending to allow more investment and boost sluggish growth in the world's seventh-largest economy. Some economists say social programs will have to give for the country to invest more in industrial output and upgrade its dilapidated infrastructure to be competitive.

($1 = 2.03 Brazilian reais)

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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