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Internet scam lands snowbirds

Published Aug. 27, 2005

After driving all the way from Ottawa, Canada, Larry and Carmen Malham were so eager to see their winter home that they swung by two days early.

The mobile home at 1066 Flamingo Lane was the same blue and white place they had seen on the Internet and paid $1,500 to reserve. But when William Ray Hunter opened the door on Dec. 30, the place was still loaded with his furniture, computers and clothes.

"Don't worry," Hunter said. "Tomorrow I'll have everything out."

The next day he was still there, so they demanded a refund and went to wait in the office at the Tarpon Glen Mobile Home Park.

Then a couple from Maine walked in. They, too, had rented 1066 Flamingo.

"Have a seat," Larry Malham, 70, said. "Stand in line."

More followed.

At one time or another, at least eight different individuals or couples showed up expecting to move into Hunter's mobile home, Pinellas County sheriff's officials said Friday. Hunter, 41, was arrested this week and charged with defrauding at least 19 snowbirds ages 55 to 74 of more than $33,330. The victims hailed from Canada, Michigan, Massachusetts, Ohio, Alabama, Maine, New York, Rhode Island, Illinois and Kentucky.

Deputies say Hunter advertised his mobile home on the Web as available for January through March. To secure their leases, Hunter had people send him cashier's checks ranging from $500 to $3,000.

"I don't think he thought too much about what would happen when everybody showed up," said sheriff's Sgt. Bob Hart.

Hart, who has been with the department's economic crime division since 1990, said such scams are rare and usually the con artists think a little further ahead.

"Most people have a plan," Hart said. "He had the first part, but he didn't have the second part."

When interviewed, deputies said, Hunter said little other than that he had no steady income. He did send some prospective renters e-mails about a scheduling mix-up.

Back in November, retired state workers Donald and Carol Carlino Sr. of New York searched the Web for rentals in Tarpon Springs, Palm Harbor and Dunedin. Hunter's place came up. Corresponding by e-mail, Hunter relayed that the first place they wanted was taken, but he had four other places in three different mobile home parks. The Carlinos settled on one near Westfield Shoppingtown Countryside and paid $1,000 as a down payment.

Just before the Carlinos left Albany, Hunter sent them an e-mail saying there was a problem with the Countryside place, but that he was closing on another they could rent. When they arrived, they had trouble reaching Hunter.

"Needless to say, he doesn't own in either place," said Donald Carlino, 68.

"I'm so mixed up now that I don't trust anybody," Carlino said, "and I was never like that."

"Without a doubt, I will not do anything with individuals on the Internet," Carlino said. "It's going to be all through Realtors or individuals that I know. I won't go through this again."

Investigators fear additional victims are likely. Hart said anyone with additional information about Hunter should call sheriff's Detective Russell Dunning at (727) 582-6437.

Hunter was being held at the Pinellas County Jail without bail Friday on charges of scheming to defraud and violating his probation on charges of organized fraud, racketeering and grand theft.

Meanwhile, some of his victims were counting their blessings. The Malhams and the couple from Maine actually got refunds from Hunter before his arrest.

Carlino was not refunded and ended up paying $250 a month more than he expected.

But he loves Florida.

"It's a beautiful area," he said. "It's still warm for us. One day my son (in New York) called and said it was like 43 below there with the wind chill.

"It was 50 here."

Where to call

Anyone with additional information about William Ray Hunter should call sheriff's Detective Russell Dunning at (727) 582-6437.