WINTER HAVEN – Tourists flock to this region to enjoy the theme parks and other attractions here, but they also expect that in a tourism Mecca like Central Florida, they can expect to feel safe during their stay.
If not, cautioned An Flamand, then anyone who works in the tourism and hospitality industry has a lot to be worried about.
”As we all know, with the tourists being here, crime actually goes up a little,’’ said Flamand, who runs a property management firm that oversees several vacation homes, called USA Vacation Homes in Davenport.
For one thing, she said, a lot of the tourists appear to be easy targets for scam artists, including those pretending to sell reduced price tickets to the theme parks.
”We have a problem with those cheap ticket sales on (U.S.) 192 and (U.S.) 27,’’ Flamand said.
Another problem for the vacation home industry, she said, is that when these fully furnished houses, rented on a short term basis to tourists, are not booked, thieves see it as a good opportunity to break in and steal whatever furniture they can take.
”If the house is empty, there are higher chances of burglers coming in,’’ she said.
At other times, thieves target these homes while they’re booked, and break in while the guests are out at the theme parks, stealing their valuables.
Flamand is the president of the Central Florida Vacation Rental Managers Association, the association that represents the vacation home industry in this region. When the association held its monthly meeting at the Legoland Florida theme park in Winter Haven on Thursday, May 17, Flamand cautioned the members that if tourists are being scanned or robbed during their stay in Central Florida, chances are they won’t be back.
”You may think it doesn’t affect us, but it does,’’ she said. ”If people go home and say ‘I went to Orlando and got scammed,’ that hurts us.’’
Jennie Burton agreed. Burton is the crime prevention administrator for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, and she said they routinely advise both residents and visitors to be vigilant at all times. Central Florida and its tourist attractions have a lot to offer, Burton said, but unfortunately it’s not just tourists attracted to them.
”We do public education on safety topics, for adults and children,’’ she said. Protection, she said, can be as simple as locking your car door when parked at a public place, and ensuring that valuables are safely stored in the trunk, and not where thieves can see them inside the car as an all-too tempting target.
”We really want to reinforce, make sure your doors are locked and your windows are completely rolled up,’’ she said. Valuables left inside the car in plain view are ”invitations to criminals to try and break into your car.’’
Lt. Mike Fisher of the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office works in the West End substation on Poinciana Boulevard, right off U.S. 192, which has a Tourism Safety Unit that patrols that tourist friendly corridor, from Kissimmee and St. Cloud down to Celebration and Four Corners. He said their task is to make sure not just local residents, and also visitors, don’t become victims.
”Anything tourist-related, our unit investigates,’’ he said.
He agreed with Flamand that one of the biggest challenges for his officers is ticket scams.
”We’ve noticed an increase in the ticket scams for several years,’’ he said. ”It’s just a money maker. I liken it to drug dealing without the drugs. They will ask them to give their credit card numbers and personal information, and then when they get to the front gate of the theme park and can’t get in, they’ve already spent hundreds of dollars on those fake tickets. The guest is really the victim here, because they lose their money at the gate and then have to pay hundreds more to get in.’’
His unit is fighting back, he said, with the help of the leaders in the tourism field.
”What we’ve done is run stings with Disney and SeaWorld and take our guys out there,’’ he said. ”We’ve even put people in wheelchairs, and they don’t expect to see a cop in a wheelchair. We try to do one of these stings every quarter. We’re hitting them with a charge of scheming to defraud, because with that charge, it opens them up to seizure of their property and goods.’’
To avoid being scammed, he noted that the major theme parks like Universal Studios and SeaWorld would provide a list of names of legitimate ticket vendors.
There are other types of crimes that his unit investigates, Fisher said, including employers that hire teens to pass out flyers, then don’t pay them when the work is done.
”The kids pass out the flyers, then they end up not getting paid by the actual employer, which gets their flyers out,’’ Fisher said.
Flamand and David Leather, the past president of the CFVRMA, said they’re also concerned about so-called pizza flyer scams, where crime rings hire people to hand out flyers for fake pizza delivery companies. The flyers are mainly a rouse to get people to provide their personal information, including their credit cards numbers, to the criminals.
Although the Florida Legislature approved a bill cracking down on this crime and increasing the penalties for it, ”This is still a problem,’’ Leather said.
isher agreed, but added, ”It’s a hard thing to police. When we police it, we actually have to follow them and witness them doing it. Usually it’s the same people behind most of them. They just change the names.’’
He said if a local hotel, motel or vacation home finds pizza flyers put on the doors of their properties, the managers should call his office immediately and give them the number on the flyer.
”Take note of the pizza flyer and the number on it, and you can call our west substation and give it to the sheriff or deputy,’’ he said.
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