SUN CITY CENTER — Jim Ryan bought a new camera and his wife picked out new clothes for a "Wild West" trip they planned to take this week.
The couple, along with more than 30 of their Sun City Center neighbors and about 50 Tampa Bay area residents, booked an 11-day trip through Carefree Vacation Services of St. Petersburg. They were to fly to Denver on Monday and travel by motor coach through nine national parks before flying home from Las Vegas.
But instead of capturing memorable photos with pristine mountain ranges in the background, Jim and Grace Ryan say they are stuck staring at an attorney's letter on behalf of company owner Jeff Fox, who canceled the trip and filed for bankruptcy, leaving them without the $1,998 they each paid for the vacation.
"We watched this guy, Jeff Fox, take all of our money and he has given us some excuse — that people aren't buying — that his management group was hacked," said Jim Ryan, 71. "What happened? Did this guy get in over his head? He knew he had to squirm to get out of it."
Records from the Middle District of Florida Bankruptcy Court show that Carefree Vacation Services filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy May 14, listing $0 to $50,000 in assets and $100,001 to $500,000 in liabilities.
The Ryans, along with Sun City Center resident Charlie Sambrook, said Fox met with the Sun City Center group May 9 and indicated that there were some issues with the trip. He reassured the seniors that the hotel portion was in good standing but that the large block of airline seats posed a problem. Fox explained that the computer hacking that led to the problem occurred on April 4, the Ryans said.
Grace Ryan said they received a letter from Jake Blanchard, a Largo attorney representing the company, and Fox in which he talks about how "with great sadness and circumstances beyond my control I have to cancel the trip and close my doors."
The letter says that Fox's "No. 1 goal is getting the money back to you" and that he wants to "assure you that I did not personally profit from this."
Sambrook, 73, booked the excursion along with his wife, Barbara, 71. They traveled with Fox and his company last year to New Orleans and Clewiston with satisfactory results, so the toughest part about losing $4,413 was the broken trust.
"What bothers most of us is the fellow absconded with the money," Sambrook said. "Things do happen at times, but I am most upset the man blatantly lied to us."
Calls and emails to Fox and Blanchard were not returned by press time. The company billed itself as the "best value in travel" on its website, which has been taken offline. It also offered travel insurance for $415 through an Indiana company called iTravelInsured, but Jim Ryan said those who tried to file a claim were denied because the company filed for bankruptcy.
An iTravelInsured official said they began investigating the issue when they learned about it Monday.
"This is an unfortunate circumstance for all involved," said Luz Merle. "iTravelInsured is in the process of investigating the matter. We will update our customers regarding their travel insurance as we learn more about the situation."
The Ryans and Sambrook said that all Sun City Center residents received a $200 deposit back from Sun City Center Residents Inc., which helped book the trip on their behalf.
Bryan Oglesby, director of business relations for the Better Business Bureau serving west Florida, said Fox's company was a relatively new company to the BBB and carried a B- rating, with one complaint on file during the past 12 months.
"You always want to do your homework and check all parties involved to verify all the information on all companies involved," he said. "Take a minute to check them out with the BBB."
Oglesby offered these tips for consumers making large purchases:
• Pay with a credit card because sometimes there is extra protection.
• If you have a negative experience, document your complaint with multiple agencies, including the Better Business Bureau and law enforcement.
• Alert the bureau about problems with a company owner so it can investigate any new businesses the owner may start.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Eric Vician can be reached at [email protected]