Spring break is a rite of passage for college students; it’s the holiday for bikinis, beers and scam artists.
It was spring break 2010, and I was among ten friends headed to Panama City Beach. I was beyond thrilled because my “Panama Marvelous Villa” awaited me. It was equipped with smart house electronics, a Jacuzzi, an attached two-bedroom guesthouse, a maid and my absolute favorite, the private conference room. It slept 22 and was only $350 a night.
Hold on, there’s more. The total fee of $153 included the security deposit. Each person would get a $65 refund if we didn’t trash the place. Sounds marvelous right?
With each of us pre-occupied with life and other spring break preparations, we left the planning up to one person. We paid and she booked. Three cars, filled with eleven girls and high expectations, all ignorant of what lied ahead on Surf Drive.
Having a late departure that Thursday afternoon, we rushed to Panama City worried that we wouldn’t make our unusual 4 p.m. check-in. My best friend and I led the group since we had the GPS. While en route, I had many questions such as: How many keys will we get if it sleeps 22? Can this maid cook? Is this conference table like the one in Set It Off?
The address was 8273 Surf Drive. Once in Panama City, my GPS led us to a trailer park. At that point I was sure that I’d mistakenly searched the wrong address. “I knew it, this place isn’t real, we’ll be sleeping on the beach tonight,” said my friend Maria. Ignoring her, we used a second navigation system to be sure and it led us to Surf Drive. We made it. Right on the beach, just like the ad said. After driving up and down Surf Drive for over an hour, never to find our marvelous villa, reality set in. We were victims of a scam. An estimated $2,500 was wired cash and placed into the hands of a criminal. Ending up in a shabby hotel, sleeping three to a bed, we realized how easy it was to become a victim of fraud.
On the website that our “villa” was listed, it read in fine print;
“Villa4vacation.com makes no warranty of accuracy regarding the information contained in any of its advertisements.”
According to the Internet Crime Complaint Center, Florida ranks number two in the number of fraudulent crimes.
A trip like this seems unreal until you’re the victim, then it becomes reality.
Ten TIPS to avoid being a victim of online fraud.
1) NEVER wire cash.
2) Do NOT give out credit card or social security information online.
3) Read the fine print.
4) Check for hidden fees.
6) Do your research on the company.
7) Communicate verbally and never rely on email.
8) Keep all passwords secure.
9) Questions are your friends, ask!
10) When something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.