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Largo travel agent accused of swindling customers, selling phony cruise vouchers

Janet Bender, 54, of Largo faces a dozen grand theft charges from the sale of fake cruise vouchers.
Janet Bender, 54, of Largo faces a dozen grand theft charges from the sale of fake cruise vouchers.
Published May 7, 2016

LARGO — Talk to someone who booked a vacation with Janet Bender and you may pull the first thread from a nasty snarl.

You will hear of fake vouchers and false credit card charges, unanticipated fees and stacks of printed emails an inch thick. Sometimes, you will hear about a completed trip. But not always.

Bender, who was arrested by Pinellas Park police earlier this year on fraud charges, was arrested again Thursday by Pinellas sheriff's deputies. She faces a dozen grand theft charges, authorities said, from the sale of fake cruise vouchers.

Both agencies said investigators may find more victims and file more charges against Bender, 54, of Largo.

"Anything that came out of her mouth was a lie," said George Fanelli, 70, of Schaumburg, Ill., who said he booked a trip to Disney last year with Bender but never received plane tickets or a hotel confirmation. Bender promised a refund, Fanelli said, but he never got one and is still trying to clear a $3,000 charge on his credit card.

Bender could not be reached for comment Thursday. Jail records show she was released on $24,000 bail. She was working under a cruise retailer called CruiseOne, authorities said. A CruiseOne spokeswoman said Bender was an employee at an independently owned franchise.

The man whom she worked for in Pinellas Park also could not be reached for comment Friday.

According to Pinellas Park police records, Bender sold one woman $3,000 worth of cruise vouchers last year and then never booked the trips. She also made unauthorized purchases worth thousands of dollars on at least five other people's credit cards, the records show.

Pinellas deputies said Bender sold a number of other phony vouchers for cruises last year. The customers paid in cash or checks addressed to her.

Fred Wimmer, 75, of Dunedin said he booked a trip to Europe and a cruise with Bender. His hotel room in Europe had not been paid for, even though he had already given Bender $12,000, he said. The cruise supposedly cost $2,000, but on the boat, Wimmer and his wife were told the cost was $6,050, and half of that amount had been put on his credit card. The other half, Wimmer said, was charged to a woman he had never met.

Other fraudulent charges soon appeared on his statements.

"We got a bill from our credit company saying that in Hollywood, Fla., we charged a room, which we never did. Then there was a charge to send people to Normandy, which we didn't do," he said. "Then there was another charge for onboard expenses for a Carnival cruise, which we didn't pay. Then there was a Carnival cruise to Alaska, which we didn't book."

State records show Bender has faced theft and fraud charges before, dating to the 1980s. She and her husband filed for bankruptcy in 2014, according to a court filing.

For months, Wimmer said, Bender answered calls and sent letters from cruise companies and Expedia assuring that everything was being handled.

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Police later told him all of the letters were fake, he said, printed on a copied letterhead.

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.

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