A growing number of visitors looking for fun in the Keys sun are finding that sometimes, there's a dark side to these islands: Increasingly, those who book vacation rentals listed on Web sites such as www.craigslist.com arrive here only to discover they've been scammed.
The problem is evidenced by three police reports filed just last week by out-of-towners showing up to check in to their rentals. The problem: The purported owners can't be found and, in one case, the visitors were directed to a non-existent Duval Street address.
Everett Smith, a property manager with Compass Realty who specializes in the vacation-rental-heavy Truman Annex neighborhood of Key West, said he started to notice problems in October. Since then, he said, things have gotten significantly worse.
"It started off with maybe one a month," Smith said, "and now it's maybe one a day or every other day. It's gotten ridiculous."
Smith went so far as to contact the Monroe County State Attorney's Office. Investigator Chris Weber acknowledged the problem but stopped short of saying there's an investigation under way.
"I will tell you that there seems to be a lot of fraud on Craigslist for rental property in the Keys," he said. "We're making every effort to combat it."
James Donelan of Warwick, R.I., showed up with two of his buddies for a tropical vacation on March 8. They planned a two-night stay at 506 Porter Lane, a three-bedroom in Truman Annex purchased by a Michigan man in 2005 for $1.45 million.
Donelan found the listing on Craigslist and booked it through e-mail with a couple calling themselves "Billy" and "Jocelyn." Using online money transferring provider PayPal, Donelan paid $582 with his credit card; PayPal subsequently sent him a receipt indicating a Mezei Zorad had received the money.
Asked if things seemed fishy at that point, Donelan, speaking from his home back in Rhode Island, said, "Not really. Not until I got down there."
When they got here, Donelan called "Billy," who said he'd meet their party at the rental to let them in. When "Billy" didn't show, Donelan called the police. The cops called "Billy" back and, according to a report, he said "he was coming with the key from Daytona."
In response, Officer Tiffini Miller "asked why he would rent a property to someone, but have the keys six hours away. 'Billy' then hung up on me. I called back and the phone continued to ring; no answer, no voicemail."
Fortunately, Donelan said, PayPal "reversed the charge" so he wasn't out any money. He and his friends were able to find lodging at the Parrot Key Hotel and Resort on North Roosevelt Boulevard, but the vacation wasn't without injury. "I think the worst part of this was my ego," he said. "My ego was definitely bruised."
On March 7, 19-year-old Jennifer Gradolf came from Ormond Beach to check in to a rental at 109 Front St., the Harbour Place Condominiums in Truman Annex.
She told police she used PayPal to transmit $870 for a three-night stay. The receipt she got showed a Warrack Wong received the payment; the contact person she had been e-mailing with used the name "Smith."
And, like Donelan, when she got here, there was no rental agent to be found. She, too, called city police.
While Gradolf was talking with police, the filed report states, a Truman Annex security guard came up and said "this was the third time in a week that an incident similar to this had occurred" at the Front Street address.
Also on March 7, Stephen Bleiler of Cloud, Mich., came to Key West looking for a rental he found on Craigslist and paid $750 through PayPal. He quickly figured out that the address of the alleged rental, 1216 Duval St., is a vacant lot.
Smith, the property manager, said his office tries to help scam victims find other lodging on the island. "The whole staff is aware of the problem," he said. "The association at Truman Annex is aware that it's going on. We're trying to police it but it's hard to have the manpower to do that every day."