FOUR CORNERS – Central Florida’s tourism industry has been one of the few in this region creating jobs — one in every four jobs being created regionally — and the theme parks have been reporting a strong year for attendance.
The last thing the industry needs is people trying to defraud the tourists who have become this region’s bread and butter.
Well aware of that, the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office arrested three people this week, charging them were attempting to rip off people who have come to this area looking for theme park tickets or to book a cruise.
With the big Labor Day Weekend coming up, the sheriff’s office is hoping these arrests send the right signal to tourists that it’s still safe to come here.
On Tuesday, deputies with the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office’s Tourist Policing Unit arrested Jeff Almiron, 35, of Clermont and Karrie Geith, 42, of Kissimmee, and charged them with scheming to defraud through the illegal resale of theme park multi-day tickets.
Both were operating on U.S. 192 in Four Corners, where it’s easy to find ticket booths that sell theme park tickets to tourists planning a trip to Disney, Universal Studios or Seaworld. The tickets are often sold at discounted prices, and sometimes offering in return for a tour of a local time share property.
According to detectives, Almiron owns five ticket booths along the west end of U.S. 192, and Geith owns three, including one on the Polk County side of Four Corners. They were targeted by detectives as part of an ongoing investigation into multi-day attraction ticket schemes.
While making the arrests, TPU detectives recovered $72,000 in theme park tickets and $909 dollars in cash from Almiron’s booth at 7424 W. Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway (U.S. 192).
Geith was arrested at 9230 W. Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway in Polk County and booked into the Polk County Jail. While there, TPU detectives recovered 50 theme park tickets and $4,000 in cash.
A day earlier, Julie Diane Nimtz, owner of Johannes Travel, Inc., at 412 Campus St. in Celebration and Magical Tours and Travel, Inc., was served with a Fugitive from Justice Warrant from Illinois. She was arrested and charged with violation of probation and theft by deception.
She had been arrested on July 29 by Osceola County detectives for failing to register as a convicted felon.
Nimtz is currently on probation for a fraud charge in Illinois, where both of her corporations are registered. Nimtz, 53, of 1318 Celebration Ave., was booked into the Osceola County Jail with no bond.
Detectives say the fraud case against Nimtz involves at least 41 victims who came here to go on a cruise next month. Because of her felony conviction, Nimtz was required to register with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs or the Airline Reporting Corporation. She failed to do so, which is a first degree misdemeanor.
In June, detectives from the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office’s Economic Crimes Unit met with several people who said they had booked a cruise with Johannes Travel, but the company failed to pay the cruise line. In fact, the victims hadn’t even been booked for the cruise, which was scheduled to sail to the Bahamas in September. The victims never got reimbursed for their loss.
On its web site, Magical Tours and Travel Inc. claims it is offering “your ticket to great destinations.”
“Whether you are traveling for business or pleasure, our goal is to make your trip easy and enjoyable,” the site notes. “Our specialties include Disney, air, cruise, honeymoons, destination weddings and land packages.”
For those who want a tour, the site offers, “Let us help you make all your plans. We’ll provide you with a first-class travel experience at the lowest prices available.”
The local hospitality industry has been fighting back against crime. The Central Florida Hotel and Lodging Association, the world’s largest regional hotel association, was a major force behind the passage this year of the so-called Pizza Flyer legislation, also known as the Tourist Safety Act. It’s an anti-crime bill that’s been a critical priority for the local tourism industry.
It targets organized crime units that hire young people to visit local hotels and motels, putting flyers advertising pizza deliveries under the doors of each room. The flyers and phone numbers are fake, intended to scam tourists who call and provide their credit card information to the criminals.
In many instances, the young people distributing the flyers are also encouraged to test the hotel door handles to see if they’re unlocked – and then to burglarize the room if they are.
The new bill makes it easier for law enforcement to target the people who create these scams. It increases the penalties, and uses civil forfeiture to confiscate the vans used to transport the young thieves to the hotels.
The Four Corners Area Council, a group of business owners who operate in Four Corners, also worked out an arrangement with the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office to get email notifications whenever a crime is happening in the area. Many of these businesses operate along U.S. 192.
Hector Lizasuain, the chairman of the council, said crimes targeting unsuspecting tourists is an ongoing problem for the region, and one that could have disastrous consequences for the hospitality industry if law enforcement didn’t fight back.
“Some years ago, the county cracked down on the stands selling these tickets, and actually passed an ordinance trying to regulate them,” said Lizasuain, who is also Osceola County’s West 192 coordinator.
“The sheriff’s office has taken a really tough stance here,” he said. “When they send out the releases about these arrests, it sends the message that easy pickings — not in this county.”
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