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Scam Involving the Transfer of Money
 to a Third Party Targets Florida Hotels

By Christine Braden, Florida Keys Keynoter, MarathonMcClatchy-Tribune Business News

Dec. 9, 2006 - If it seems to good to be true it probably is - and worse. It may seem like a simple thing, but Best Western Key Ambassador General Manager Armida Averette is warning other guesthouses and hotels throughout the Keys to read the fine print before accepting or complying with any unusual reservations.

Obviously, the best way to avoid a scam is to follow good business practices. "You have a gut instinct when something is wrong," said Jodi Weinhofer, president of the Lodging Association of the Florida Keys and Key West. "Lodging staff just needs to follow that instinct."

Just this week, the Key Ambassador hotel in Key West was targeted in a scam involving the transfer of money to a third party. Key Ambassador staff was asked to process a credit card for the cost of rooms, plus the cost of "transportation." According to the fake travel agency, they needed the hotel to process a credit card for a supposed car rental agency since it was without the ability to process a credit card itself. An e-mail from the would-be scam artists said, "We have decided that only you will have to charge the Visa account information to enable the transport agent to arrange for us vehicles and other logistics."

Averette, who does not normally review reservations, was alerted to the probable scam when her staff forwarded it to her for authorization. "Don't ever transfer money to a third party, and read everything," Averette advised other hotels who might also be targeted.

While Weinhofer admitted that the Keys rarely encountered any menacing types of crimes, working or visiting an area like the Keys, which can seem to be on perpetual vacation, is not a license to give common sense a leave of absence, she insisted.

"Basically, if it sounds too good to be true, don't do it," Sgt. J.R. Torres, with the Key West Police Department, said. "That goes for businesses and individuals. Use common sense. No one gives something away for nothing."

Recently the Lodging Association passed on information about another scam tactic that had the potential to work if it had gone unchecked.

Suspicions were raised about the authenticity of several $500 American Express Gift Cheques when a Key West guesthouse was asked to cash the check and wire the money to a third party in the United Kingdom. Considering the circumstances, the guesthouse found the checks were counterfeit when they called American Express directly and found it was a scam that had reached several other areas throughout the country. "One thing I tell people is to request contact information so you can call a person back to verify the authenticity of the caller or the business they are representing," Torres said. "If you call back and it's a pay phone number, you've proven that it's not a legitimate operation."

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Copyright (c) 2006, Florida Keys Keynoter, Marathon

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