Florida's reputation as a paradise for petty thieves and fraud is being reinforced by timeshare resale companies preying on the elderly and the desperate. Thousands of complaints flood into the state attorney general every year, but most fall through the cracks. While Attorney General Pam Bondi commendably persuaded the Legislature to pass legislation that will give her office more authority to fight these scams, what's really needed is a coordinated statewide effort to put these companies out of business and the worst offenders in jail.
There are some legitimate timeshare resale companies, but a large segment of the industry exists just to take advantage of the vulnerable. These companies target the elderly or people in dire financial straits who are desperate to sell one or more timeshares to get out of the costly maintenance fees. Victims say they are told by the resale company that it has a buyer waiting if the seller pays advertising fees of a thousand dollars or more. Then no buyer materializes. Some victims are defrauded over and over, spending more on resale than their timeshares are worth.
A six-month investigation by Tampa Bay Times staff writers Will Hobson and Caryn Baird documented rampant abuse and little reaction by law enforcement. Since 2008 there has been an explosion of nearly 25,000 complaints of timeshare resale fraud filed with the Florida Attorney General's Office, the most common consumer fraud complaint in the state. Yet the office has brought only a handful of lawsuits against perpetrators, preferring to reach settlements where the company does not admit wrongdoing and may keep operating. Those agreements have recouped a fraction of the money victims have lost.
Similarly, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which licenses telemarketers such as timeshare resale companies, did not do essential background checks on most applications until last summer. By relying on the applicant's word that he had no prior disqualifying felony convictions, ex-felons were able to get into the phone solicitation business and renew their licenses year after year. Even today, the agency is falling down on the job by checking only for Florida convictions, letting felons with out-of-state criminal records obtain state licenses.
Every law enforcement agency seems to point the finger at another one. Timeshare resale operators work from local strip malls and office buildings, but local law enforcement largely refers victims, who are mostly out-of-state, to the agriculture department or the attorney general. Meanwhile, Bondi's office bats it back. Spokeswoman Jenn Meale says since the attorney general's economic crimes division can only file civil charges, criminal investigations are referred to local law enforcement.
This piecemeal approach is not getting the job done. Better investigation, tracking and coordination across jurisdictions is needed, either through the attorney general's office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement or a strike force established by the governor such as the one created last year to combat the state's pill mills. With more than 8,000 complaints to the attorney general's office in 2011, targeting fraudulent timeshare resale operations should be a higher priority.