SAN ANTONIO – A coordinated international network of scammers is preying on people who are selling timeshares, and the Better Business Bureau and victims are sending warnings in an effort to deter future scams.
The crooks promise a list of buyers and request some upfront fees, but the buyers don't exist and victims never see that money again.
A local woman, who has asked not to be identified, lost $32,000 to this scam.
At first, it was an exciting phone call for the San Antonio woman, who was trying to sell the timeshare in Mexico she'd owned for more than 10 years.
The voicemail said: "This is Luis Valdez from the Continental Group. I just wanted to give you the good news personally. We have the counter offer already back, and we have this for $53,700."
Luis Valdez was a man she believed to be a broker in Chicago who was working with multiple Mexican entities to help her legally sell the property.
The entities included a Mexican law firm, the Bank of Mexico and Mexico's version of the Internal Revenue Service.
The caller said the woman would have to pay the government some fees due to transaction laws that changed with the new Mexican president.
"Having to do with capital gains of Mexican government, then I would have to send a separate wire for transfer fees, then I would have to send a separate wire for the resale certificate," she said. "They would claim that the Mexican government was requesting this money, that it was beyond their control."
The caller said she essentially had to pay money in order to get her originally wired money back.
During the entire process, the scammer sent the woman seemingly legitimate confirmation documents for everything that were stamped and labeled with the seals of real banks and government agencies.
"These are the different wires that match up," she said, laying out dozens of documents.
She said she went online and researched the agencies, the laws in Mexico and more.
"I investigated even his broker license, and his broker license is legitimate. But it is listed under a different business, so they change businesses every time," she said.
Looking back, the woman realized her research wasn't enough.
The reimbursements never came through, and when she realized it was a scam, she was out $32,000.
She immediately reported the scam to the FBI, the BBB and Federal Trade Commission.
"At this point, I just want to let everybody know because there's so many scams and they looked legitimate," the woman said.
To others who believe they've been scammed, she said not to let embarrassment or shame stop you from reporting the crime.
The BBB offers the following advice to avoid becoming a victim of this type of scam:
Be wary of unsolicited offers. If an opportunity just falls in your lap -- or your inbox -- and appears too good to be true, it probably is.
Be suspicious of transactions that involve additional fees. Scammers will often tempt you with a great offer and request additional fees to further the transaction. Never share bank account numbers or other personally identifying information with someone you've never met.
Don't be pressured to act immediately. Scammers typically try to make you think something is scarce or a limited time offer. They want to push you into action before you have time to think or to discuss it with a family member, friend or financial advisor. High-pressure sales tactics are also used by some legitimate businesses, but it's never a good idea to make an important decision quickly.
Do your research. Review businesses, complaints and reviews from other consumers. Look on the secondary market for properties being resold.
The BBB also offers the following advice if you are looking to purchase a vacation property:
Talk with the owner. If you are not using a service that verifies properties and owners, do not negotiate a rental solely by email. Many scammers don't live locally, so get the owner on the phone and ask detailed questions about the property and local attractions. An owner with vague answers to your questions is a clear red flag.
Check public records. Investigate on Google or another search engine. Look up the address and use Google Street View to confirm the property matches the one advertised. Also, verify distances to beaches, attractions and airports while on the site.
Look for reviews and ask for references. While you're vetting properties, don't forget to check bbb.org and other online reviews. Some vacation rental websites provide an opportunity to rate the rental property as well as the owner or property manager.
Don't wire money or use a prepaid debit card. You should never pay for a vacation rental by prepaid debit card or wire transfer. These payments are the same as sending cash. Once you send the money, you have no way to get it back. That's why scammers depend upon these forms of payment. Paying with a credit card is your best bet to avoid being out money because of a shady vacation rental. If your rental ends up being a scam, you can dispute the charge and dramatically limit your liability.