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Nationwide timeshare scam based in Tampa Bay claims millions — plus one lawyer's reputation

Attorney David Eaton, whose name was used in a nationwide timeshare telemarketing scam, at his law office in St. Petersburg.  [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Attorney David Eaton, whose name was used in a nationwide timeshare telemarketing scam, at his law office in St. Petersburg. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published May 9

Ten years ago, Sandi Breding bought a week in a Las Vegas timeshare resort. She used it less than expected so, nearing retirement and needing some cash, she advertised it for sale in 2016.

Months later, Breding received a call at her Oregon home. "We've got a buyer for you,'' the caller said. All she had to do was wire money for the closing costs to David Eaton, a lawyer in Florida.

Breding looked up David Eaton on Google and yes, there was a lawyer by that name in St. Petersburg. Via Western Union, she sent $2,000. Asked for more money, she got suspicious and looked up Eaton again. This time, she called his office.

"It isn't us,'' the receptionist told her. "Mr. Eaton had his identity stolen.''

Breding, a 63-year-old registered nurse, had been scammed.

So you want to unload your timeshare? Good luck

For years, a telemarketing fraud ring based in the Tampa Bay area targeted Breding and other owners desperate to unload timeshares. Many of the victims were elderly, and some had wired as much as $16,000, never to see it again.

One of the victims, too, was David Eaton. He had spent hundreds of hours on the phone with angry people from all over the country convinced he was the one who had scammed them. As he calmed them down, listening to their stories and urging them to contact law enforcement, he wondered about the crook who had used his name and smeared his reputation.

Cracking the scam — which has netted the fraudsters at least $2.2 million — would take the work of the St. Petersburg Police Department, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the FBI, which at one point arranged a sting in a windy Walmart parking lot. The investigation continues: So far it has led to the arrests and guilty pleas of six men.

And so it was that on March 8 in a federal courtroom in Tampa, the real David Eaton finally got a look at the fake David Eaton.

And then the real Dave Eaton did something that surprised even himself.

•••

From an idea born in England in the 1960s, timeshares have grown into a multi-billion dollar global industry. The pitch is enticing: Save on hotel bills by owning a share of a lovely resort in Florida or Mexico or Spain. You can enjoy a week or more every year at the same resort or, thanks to exchange programs, swap for a stay at a different resort.

There is a downside. Even after paying off their timeshares, owners still have annual maintenance fees. As resorts age and need more maintenance, those fees can balloon. Yet owners who want to sell often find it hard to do so. Especially in older, less popular resorts, supply outweighs demand. Hence another thriving industry: timeshare resales.

For a fee, some firms will negotiate with timeshare companies to take back the property. Other firms will list timeshares for sale, also for a fee.

Then there are the scamsters, like those in the ring in Tampa Bay.

Pretending to be lawyers or real estate professionals, they called timeshare owners whose ads they saw online. They claimed to have buyers but sellers needed to pay closing costs and other fees. The money ended up with the crooks. Among them: a high school dropout named Mark Boring.

As far back as 1988, when he was still in his teens, Boring had been in and out of minor trouble in Pinellas County — disorderly conduct, swimming in prohibited areas, public urination. There were more serious violations, too — at least two DUIs, battery, marijuana possession and driving with a suspended license.

With his background and limited education making it hard to find work, Boring gravitated to telemarketing. He initially sold timeshares, but lost his job. Then a Largo man, now dead, recruited him to the resale scheme.

Most of the places where Boring lived were in north St. Petersburg. As he drove along Dr. Martin Luther King Street, past TJ Maxx and Target, he would pass a modest strip shopping center with a big sign on top: LAW OFFICES DAVID A. EATON.

•••

Some years ago, Eaton got a call from the Florida Bar, telling him it had a complaint from a woman who said Eaton had hoodwinked her out of money.

Eaton couldn't believe it. Why would anyone think he had anything to do with a timeshare scam?

A lawyer since 1983, he had spent three years with the Pinellas County state attorney's office before going into private practice. He had tried divorce and criminal defense work, liking neither, and eventually settled on the staid field of estate planning. His office was just a few blocks from the house where he lived with his wife, Chibi, and his son, David Jr., a student in the International Baccalaureate program at St. Petersburg High School.

The Bar's attorney knew Eaton, and knew after questioning the woman that he had not been involved in any scam.

"I'm calling you out of courtesy, just to let you know someone is pretending to be you,'' the attorney said.

For a time, the complaint seemed to be an isolated case. But in late 2016, Eaton began getting calls that went like this:

"Hello, David Eaton,'' he would answer. Silence. Then, "Ohhhh, you're the real David Eaton.''

One of the first victims he heard from was Lorri Waldman of Lake Tahoe, Nev. She had listed two timeshares for sale, received an offer and wired money for closing fees to someone she thought was Eaton.

"They sounded convincing,'' she would later say of the men she spoke with. "They said they have clients who want them because they're right near Disney and they buy them for conventions for their people and stuff like that.''

Among the few skeptics was Brian Sheets, who runs the environmental services department of a town in Maine. He and his wife had inherited a timeshare at the Sheraton Vistana in Orlando that they used less often as their children got older. Unable to sell it through Vistana, they paid a few hundred dollars to advertise it with a timeshare listing company. That led to emails and calls saying there was a potential buyer, that attorney David Eaton would handle the sale and that the couple needed to pay a retainer fee.

Sheets, sensing a scam, looked up Eaton's profile on the Bar's website. It had his email address — different from the email address with the purchase offer. On Jan. 10, 2017, Sheets sent Eaton a message:

"I will need for you to provide something in writing to validate the legitimacy of this transaction.''

Eaton responded: "Please call me immediately.''

The two men had a long, friendly conversation, and Eaton asked Sheets to contact St. Petersburg police. Though the scamsters likely were using untraceable "burner'' phones, Sheets agreed to call a number they had given him to see if he might get a lead on where they were.

"I tried my best to not give him any indication we were trying to get him,'' Sheets later said of the scamster he spoke with. That was the last conversation they had, though.

Eaton also contacted police and asked to speak to Chief Anthony Holloway. He didn't respond so Eaton called two more times. Finally, on January 19, 2017, he heard from a detective:

"We're going to look into it.''

•••

By the summer of 2017, Eaton was getting two or three calls a week from victims of the scam. It was taking an emotional toll as he listened sympathetically, often for an hour or more, and passed along their information to investigators.

Police wouldn't tell Eaton much beyond urging him to "hang in there.'' But a breakthrough came when the scamsters targeted kindergarten teacher Melanie Weinlein of Albany, N.Y.

Weinlein had owned a timeshare in a resort near SeaWorld Orlando for nearly 20 years. After her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, she wanted to sell the share so she could get her finances in order, retire and spend more time with him before the disease totally claimed his mind. She paid $1,300 to list the share.

In October 2017, she got good news. "I sold your timeshare,'' the caller said, and referred her to a man who identified himself as Eaton. He would handle the sale but needed money for closing costs and other expenses.

Weinlein tried to make a Western Union transfer at a Walgreen's but a clerk told her "this is a scam'' and wouldn't accept the money. The man who claimed to be Eaton then instructed her to go to Walmart: Its algorithm for doing transfers wasn't as "strict'' as Western Union's, he said.

After Weinlein had wired a total of $8,100, with no evidence of a sale, "Eaton" stopped responding to her calls. That's when she looked on the internet and found the real David Eaton.

"Oh, my lord,'' he said, "you got scammed, too.''

He referred her to St. Petersburg police, who put her in touch with the FBI, which asked if she would be willing to do a sting.

"Absolutely,'' she said."I want to catch that jerk.''

Two FBI agents went to Weinlein's home and outlined the plan. She would call one of the numbers she had been given, and say she had a family emergency and was still interested in selling her timeshare. The man she reached took the bait and told her to wire $800.

Last August, Weinlein met the agents in a Walmart parking lot in Albany. They gave her $800 in large bills, she went inside to make the transfer and returned with the receipt. It showed the money had been sent to Tampa. In order to collect it, the recipient had to present identification.

The name on the ID? Mark Boring.

On Dec. 11, Eaton had a call from the St. Petersburg Police Department.

"We got him,'' said the voice on the other end. It was Chief Holloway himself, thanking Eaton for spurring an investigation that had taken nearly two years and spanned the entire country.

•••

On March 8, the day Boring would be sentenced on felony fraud charges, Eaton got up before dawn and took a long walk with his dog. He had been asked to give a victim's statement in court, and he kept mulling over what he would say.

Shortly after 11 a.m. a bailiff called the case of United States of America vs. Mark Boring. On the prosecution's side of the aisle sat Eaton, with his wife, his 83-year-old mother, two detectives and a state agent there for moral support. On the defense side sat Boring and his public defender.

Eaton walked to a lectern and faced U.S. District Judge Virginia M. Hernandez Covington. He had appeared before judges hundreds of times in his legal career, but now the 60-year-old lawyer was so nervous he began hyperventilating. A bailiff handed him a cup of water. Then the story tumbled out: the call from the Bar saying someone was impersonating him. The calls from angry victims. The skill and callousness of the man who had scammed them.

"About three years ago he refined his strategy,'' Eaton said, not looking at Boring. "Guess he got my name from driving up the street and seeing the sign at my office. He exploited my name, my standing, my image, my reputation to master this scam.''

Eaton paused, took another sip of water, and continued, his voice rising.

"He zeroed in on his victims, most commonly women, most commonly elderly. I spent hundreds of hours listening to the poor souls because they simply wanted someone to tell. How could this go on and on?!''

Then, for the first time, Eaton turned to Boring and shouted:

"GOD DAMN YOU.''

The courtroom fell into stunned silence.

Eaton had imagined Boring as a smooth, white-collar type. It was a far cry from the man now facing him with a scraggly beard and a rumpled prison jump suit. The decades of drug and alcohol abuse made him look far older than his 47 years.

"I'm absolutely sorry,'' Boring told Eaton, sniffling a bit. "At the time I didn't really, obviously, think about how it would impact these people.''

When Eaton sat down, one of the investigators leaned over and patted him on the back. He listened as the prosecutor and Boring's attorney spoke. Then the judge described how touched she had been by statements from the victims, especially Melanie Weinlein and her Alzheimer's-stricken husband.

"Does that not tug at your heart strings?'' the judge asked.

She had been "profoundly moved,'' too, by Eaton's statement. She noted that lawyers tend to be held in the same low regard as used car salesman. That is, until people get in trouble and need a lawyer to help them.

"It is a noble profession,'' she said. "When something like this happens it takes away from all lawyers.''

Covington sentenced Boring to 84 months in prison. Because he had cooperated with the FBI after he was caught, the sentence was several months less than those of some of his co-defendants. He agreed to pay $895,011 in restitution to his victims although the judge warned: "There is so much money owed, they are going to get minuscule amounts.''

•••

Since the sentencing, Eaton's life has settled back to normal. He's had no more irate calls, but still thinks about the many victims. In some cases, resorts agreed to take back the timeshares. Weinlein is still stuck with hers. The scam left her with an abiding distrust.

"The people who were 'helping me' close out the timeshare knew why I was selling because I told them,'' she wrote in her statement to the judge. "I told them because they are very good at befriending you and gaining your trust. I feel like I have been preyed upon, stalked, scammed, and used.''

None of the law enforcement agencies involved would discuss the criminal scheme because the investigation continues. At last count, more than 100 victims had been identified.

"These dirtbags know what elements of human emotions to tap into,'' Eaton said. "They are profoundly skilled at what strategy to use, what to say, how to say it.''

He calls it "the perfect scam.''

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.

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