ORLANDO – Every year, millions of visitors come to Orlando to take advantage of the region’s reputation for first rate tourist attractions and hotels, resorts and timeshares.
Unfortunately, those visitors also attract something else: a criminal element that preys on people who want to spend their money here – which the criminals all too often see as a great opportunity for them as well, the Orlando Police Department says.
In fact, timeshare scams are so widespread across Central Florida that the Orlando Police Department even has an Economic Crimes Unit that specifically focuses on these scams.
Just how widespread the problem is, said Detective Hilary Bledsoe, can be measured by how many people have filed complaints with her unit.
“We have over 5,000 victims worldwide, including in England and Australia,” she said. “These cases are ongoing to this day.”
The timeshare industry remains a big business in Central Florida. Earlier this month, theme park giant Walt Disney World announced that it was going to build 147 timeshare units in a separate building next to the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. The new timeshare property is expected to open in late 2013, and it will have access to the monorail to the Magic Kingdom.
In a news release on the project, Claire Bilby, senior vice president and general manager of Disney Vacation Club, noted that “We continually look for ways to expand Disney Vacation Club by creating resort experiences that our members will love. With the continued popularity of Bay Lake Tower at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, we are thrilled to offer our members and guests a new resort option along the monorail system with easy access to the Magic Kingdom Park, as well as a variety of shopping, dining and recreation experiences.”
But timeshare fraud is also big business, Bledsoe said, which is why the Economic Crimes Unit stays so busy investigating new claims.
“We have served 59 search and seizure warrants this year,” she said.
Detective Mike Stevens, who also works in the Economic Crimes Unit, said Orlando’s reputation for tourism has made the city a target for criminals who are constantly looking for new ways to take advantage of potential victims — particularly people who live in other states and other nations, and who want to purchase their own vacation property in the Orlando metro area. If they have money to buy a timeshare, Stevens said, often times the criminals are eagerly waiting for them.
“We’ve seen that these are very organized criminal groups,” Stevens said. “We see these scams change every day.”
That makes it a challenge to keep up with the scam artists, he added.
“As you can see, Orlando is ground zero for these crimes,” he said. “We don’t intend on stopping any time soon.”
This is not the only undercover operation that the Orlando Police Department has designated to combat crimes targeting tourists. Orlando Police Chief Paul Rooney said his office recently launched Operation Holiday Cheer, “to attack crime within the major shopping areas.”
That includes International Drive, a crowded tourist spot in Orlando during the holidays. It’s also, Rooney added, a popular spot for criminals, no matter what time of year. In 2011 alone, Orlando police officers responded to a total of 11,887 calls on International Drive, and made 421 arrests there and 2,228 traffic stops.
The criminals would be having a much easier time, Rooney said, if not for the efforts of his officers.
“They are the ones doing the job day in and day out,” he said.
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