LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. (FOX 5 Atlanta) - Whether you vacation in the mountains or at the beach, chances are you've been solicited to buy a timeshare.
Some timeshare owners later regret their decision to commit big money guaranteeing a few weeks each year at a resort. They want out.
And as the FOX 5 I-Team discovered, that makes them an easy target for crooks.
"They have very good cheating skill," a Chinese-American resident of Lawrenceville told us as she recounted how she wound up wiring $45,600 in so-called "prepaid fees" to various Mexican banks in order to sell her $29,900 Cancun timeshare.
"Yeah," she agreed when comparing those numbers. "That's ridiculous."
Around 1.2 million people own timeshares in Mexico. Crooks get their hands on owner lists, then make cold calls to ask the owners if they've ever considering selling. And when they get a nibble, they pull hard.
Because the timeshare properties are in Mexico, timeshare owners in this country are convinced they must put money up front first -- all to be returned at closing, they're assured -- before the deal can go through.
Officials with the Mexican government say many of those fees are fictitious or ridiculously inflated.
Over the course of several weeks, here's what our Lawrenceville woman wound up wiring to various Mexican banks:
- Registration fee: $3679
- S.R.E. permit fee: $4139
- Mexican IVA tax: $5208
- Closing and administrative fee: $4249
- Border Adjustment tax: $6510
- Capital Gain tax: $7500
She eventually filed an official complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center. She told them even after paying all that money, the crooks said they could not close the deal because the Mexican government had suddenly started a "bribery investigation." The fine to make that investigation go away? Just $10,000.
That's when this Lawrenceville woman finally said no.
"You cannot trust the talking because the talk... they didn't do what they say."
The resale companies appear to be nothing more than an impressive-looking website. Our victim dealt with Business Financial Management in Denver, CO and Silver Hawk Title in New Jersey. Both addresses are virtual offices. Silver Hawk Title has no license according to the New Jersey Banking and Insurance Commission.
Neither company responded to our emailed questions.
Luckily, our victim wised up in time to record her conversations with people representing both companies.
"David Doyle" repeatedly tried to get the Lawrenceville woman to wire that $10,000 "penalty" in order for the deal to finally close.
"So the only person left to pay the penalty is yourself, and then they will release all of the funds," he explains again and again. "That money right now is getting looked at from the authorities in Mexico."
The scam is so prolific for one depressing reason: it works.
In 2014, Chima Edozie Aligwekwe and Eugene Warren Brewington were sentenced to nine years in federal prison for running a resale fraud scheme. Operating out of Orlando, prosecutors say they pocketed $704,326.55 from timeshare owners.
Last summer, Georgia's Attorney General issued a warning after a different website popped up aimed at convincing sellers around the country their prepaid fees were safe and protected by the state of Georgia. Authorities say the crooks hijacked a real company's name. The website has since disappeared.
Mexico-based attorney Spencer McMullen has spent years trying to warn people, too. He blames the crooks and the Mexican banks for not vetting the people who open the accounts.
"There are only a handful of banks in Mexico," the American-born attorney told us from his office in Guadalajara. "So if they start blocking these people or these characteristics, then they're going to have a hard time collecting money to further their scams."
He says the conmen can be sloppy. When they sent our Lawrenceville victim documents supposedly proving a bribery investigation, the signature on the document from the Mexican equivalent of the FBI turned out to be the same as the signature on the document they sent her earlier for the Mexican equivalent of the IRS.
One thing our Lawrenceville woman did right: she fought back. Her Internet Crime Complaint called it "international financial fraud." She listed the Mexican bank accounts the crooks were using and detailed the scam they had put together. Attorney McMullen thinks the complaint forced some banks to close the accounts or freeze withdrawals.
From the tone of the callers, that complaint has clearly messed with their Mexican mojo.
"You remove the complaint, I can process the refund," one said. "You don't remove the complaint, I can't do anything more for you. Period. There's no other option."
Another finally had enough.
"Just take the freaking complaint off and get your money back."
"Now I get big lesson," she told us, resigned to the fact that, unless federal investigators get involved, she will likely never see her money.
"Yes. Big lesson."