The Million Dollar Scam Is Back!
White-collar crimes are among the most difficult kinds of cases to investigate in the consumer protection sector, especially when it involves a million dollars scam. While you may think of fraud and theft as being perpetrated by ruthless criminals on the streets, many scams are actually carefully orchestrated schemes that take place behind closed doors, in dimly lit rooms and over an IP telephone. In these million dollar scams, unlicensed telemarketing is the go-to method for a criminal element working in timeshare and/or land resales.
A Shadow Resale Organization
That’s what consumer protection investigators uncovered after a two year investigation into a coordinated criminal telemarketing operation. The Pinellas County Consumer Protection Unit responding to complaints from consumers, found that Chamera Bowman, Tammy Van Wie and Marvin Scott were running a land sales operation without a license and in violation of Florida state law. Each was charged by the Pinellas State Attorney’s Office with a scheme to defraud. Scott, the alleged ringleader was also charged with money laundering.
Unwinding The Vacant Land Scam
Investigators performed extensive interviews with over 100 victims and former employees of Scott’s companies to help unwind his multi-state sales “scheme.” According to the affidavit reported by WFLA.com, the three suspects would contact homeowners or others who owned property claiming to have buyers waiting to purchase their land. “Developers were in the area, Properties were being purchased nearby, and Closings were already scheduled.” Those lines and many others were reportedly used to hook unsuspecting owners into listing their land in property portfolios.
No Properties Were Ever Sold
Based on alleged company misrepresentations during these solicitation calls, victims would agree to pay a ‘portfolio fee’ in various amounts, typically ranging between $2,000 and $3,000. Each owner was then promised refunds on the portfolio fees upon close of sale, minus “small administrative fees.”
No properties were ever sold according to authorities, but nearly 1.4 million dollars was collected for “fees”.
CPU investigators used a number of techniques to compile evidence against the suspicious real estate companies and their connections to one another, including tracing the victim’s payments, analyzing phone and bank records and conducting a business search for common office space leased by the companies.
Here’s what they found.
Seniors Were Targeted By Resale Scams
Using various lead lists, the con artists apparently chose to target seniors across the nation, preying on victims over the age of 79 on average. But fast sales for large money required a more dynamic and deceptive approach to resale advertising, one that included the use of fictitious marketing channels and money back guarantees.
Brian Oglesby with the Better Business Bureau told the media that “The company would come to them (the victims) and claim that they had a buyer for their land, or they had a buyer on the spot and all they had to do was pay upfront fees.”
Now, If this “buyers waiting” scheme sounds similar to a timeshare resale scam, that’s because it is. Scott, had previously run several timeshare resale companies in Pinellas County that were also shut down over a dozen years ago. For him, Scott’s million dollar scam was back.
A Scam That Kept Coming Back
After being investigated by the Florida Attorney Generals Office, Scott entered into an Auto Voluntary Assurance Agreement (AVC) in 2010. As part of the conditions of that settlement, the defendant agreed to stop engaging in unfair and deceptive trade practices. Scott was also prohibited from operating his timeshare and land resale operation. It was believed that Marvin Scott had ran various businesses in timeshare and land resales beginning in the early 2000’s.
In 2014, the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation issued a cease and desist order to Scott after determining that he was brokering properties under a different business name and without a license. Later that year, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services conducted an onsite telemarketing inspection. They found the defendant Scott and other unlicensed telemarketers conducting outbound calls to Florida land owners offering a resale program with a “Refund at Closing or a “Money Back Guarantee” if the defendant could not sell the victim’s property.
In a 2016 lawsuit, Scott again settled with the Florida Attorney General’s Office. As a condition of the new settlement, he agreed to pay $76,000 in restitution to consumers who were deceived by defendants in connection with the advertisement of the resale or rental of land. The AG also permanently banned Scott from engaging in any Florida business related to land and timeshare sales. Leading up to and after the 2016 settlement, Scott allegedly took steps to conceal and disguise his involvement with another telemarketing operation as he set up new companies under the names of his employees. According to statements, Scott promoted his reluctant receptionist to president of the company to hide from regulators who he knew would be watching. He meanwhile would be running things from behind the scenes.
Over a twenty year period of time, Scott and his telemarketing crew appear to have become serial telephone scammers. He and his band of phone dialing thieves now face felony charges, which will probably keep him them off phone for a very long time. This ABC News Video explains it all in great detail.
How To Protect Yourself From A Resale Scam
If you’ve been targeted by a real estate or timeshare resale scam, there are several steps that you can take to protect yourself and potentially recoup money that may have been lost. First, report the incident to your local police and to the regional Better Business Bureau or consumer protection agency.
“Consumers should continue to be cautious whenever they are solicited by telephone from individuals seeking payment for any services,” said Doug Templeton, chief investigator for Pinellas County Consumer Protection in relation to land and real estate sales.
Regional consumer protection is a shared responsibility between many agencies, including state and federal regulators. If you suspect that you might be falling victim to fraudulent business practices here in Pinellas County or elsewhere, reach out to your local consumer protection or economic crimes office for help and guidance.
With so many scams targeting unsuspecting consumers, it’s more important than ever to be vigilant and informed when making decisions about your real estate property. By following these tips, you can help protect yourself from potentially devastating financial losses. If this has already happened, you may also want to speak with a consumer protection attorney who can help guide you further on your legal options.
Led by Attorneys Michael D. Finn and J. Andrew Meyer with over 75 years experience, the Finn Law Group is a consumer protection law firm that specializes in timeshare related matters. Feel free to contact us for a free consultation and to speak with an attorney.
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