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Across nation, the victims tell of fraud

When travel sellers shut their doors, as hundreds have done statewide in recent years, customers usually get stuck. Here are some examples, as reported by the Sun-Sentinel newspaper:

Tom Hetland thought he had stumbled onto a bargain in the Chicago Tribune classifieds.

The tiny ad boasted trips to Florida for under $300 and gave a South Florida phone number.

Hetland wanted the trip to surprise his mother, who had spent her honeymoon in Miami and would have loved to return to the area. He made a few cursory checks and found out that some low-cost vacation packages are legitimate.

So he took a chance.

He sent a $200 cashier's check to a man he knew as John Brach at Star Group's Miramar office, records state. After a week, no tickets had come. When Hetland called back, he got no answer.

"He (Brach) told me what I wanted to believe," said Hetland, a high school teacher. "I checked it out, but obviously not enough."

A man named John Beach leased the office in July. He was gone a month later. Miramar police, who received complaints from angry buyers as far away as Colorado, are investigating.

Earl K. Smith of Benson, Minn., has no idea how the salesman got his name. But the deal he promised sounded great: $269 for a trip to Florida and a cruise.

"It was a scam from the word go. They just outsmarted me," said Smith, a retiree. "It cost me a little money, but I learned a damn good lesson."

Smith and at least three others also found out about Florida's inability to crack down on travel firms that fold owing money.

Each received a form letter signed by Bob Crawford, commissioner for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, that read in part:

"It is my understanding that this firm is no longer in business; therefore, there is no practical way I can pursue your case."

Centennial operated from an office that has been home to at least three short-lived vacation dealers since 1990, records show. In June 1991, the state sued the firm and its operator, James Bonner, for failing to register.

By the time the suit was served, Centennial was gone, officials said. The state has not been able to find Bonner. Nor can officials find Mark Harstein, who was involved with two other problem travel sellers run from the site, Liquid Gold Marketing and Club USA, records show.

Mehid Vigilia, of Glendale, Calif., was hoping for a great deal on a trip for seven, a cruise deal she saw advertised in the Los Angeles Times in tandem with the purchase of a water filter.

She lost $2,649. "I was looking for a good deal," she said. "I thought you can depend on that ad, but you can't. I just want my hard-earned money back." The firm's business license lists a James Bartee as president. It was open in June, gone by September.