A small group of residents at Kings Point are saying that some 60 of its residents were bilked out of a vacation trip costing almost $150,000 in toto. Also impacted are a scattering of other senior citizens in the Tampa Bay area who also paid for the tour. State and county authorities and the Florida federal bankruptcy court are still sorting out what happened.
These disgruntled customers say they trusted Jeff Fox, owner of Carefree Vacation Services Inc., when they signed up for a trip after seeing a flier advertising a Wild Wild West tour in the Sun City Center MiniBus Travel Club February 2013 newsletter. Carefree Vacation Services is based in Fox’s home in St. Petersburg. Sixty senior citizens gave money to Fox over a period of time for the trip. Most lived in Sun City Center. More than half of these senior citizens also paid Fox for travel insurance and airfare. They were to leave on the Wild Wild West tour on May 19 this year.
Eric Olsen of the Hillsborough Consumer Protection Agency has been frantically compiling a list of these Sun City Center residents so that the Division of Consumer Services Agency, established under the Florida Department of Financial Services, can handle the complaints. Olsen explained in a phone interview on July 2 that in cases where there are unfair business practices involved and because of their regulatory jurisdiction, their county agency funnels cases like these to Tallahassee.
“We are trying to reach the people,” Olsen said. “Our interest is to get the people to the right location.”
Rock Roque, a regional field insurance administrator with the Florida Highway Patrol, contacted Kings Point resident Charley Sambrook, who had asked the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office for help when the tour offered by Fox was canceled and monies were lost. Roque told The SCC Observer in a phone interview on June 30 that an investigation of possible insurance issues in Florida was best handled by the State Police, who had the kind of expertise and resources to handle such situations that the county sheriff’s office did not.
But after talking to Sambrook, Roque said, he believed Sambrook’s plea for help should be sent to the top, to Tallahassee. Roque said what happened to the Kings Point residents should be investigated at the state level because it was possible the problem could be statewide, outside of the Patrol’s 14-county jurisdiction. Roque referred the Wild Wild West case to Dorcas Horne at Division of Consumer Services in Tallahassee. Hilda Frazier is also working on this case with Horne.
“When it first broke, our director advised us to refer it to Tallahassee,” Roque said. “They handle statewide-type cases directly.”
In a letter sent to Sambrook on May 22, Frazier wrote: “This company was not properly registered as a seller of travel with the Department as required by Florida law. Neither the Department nor any other Florida agency holds security from which to draw or make refunds to individuals that purchased travel-related services from this business.”
Fox was not licensed, insured or bonded to conduct business in the state of Florida.
The Wild Wild West tour flier was distributed in its February 2013 newsletter by the Sun City Center MiniBus Travel Club in Sun City Center. The Wild Wild West tour flier advertised a departure on May 19, 2014. The price was advertised as $2,199 for one person and $2,699 for a couple and included an 11-day/10-night fully escorted Wild Wild West tour including two nights in Las Vegas, side tours, meals, all airport transfers and motor coach bus travel throughout the tour, with all taxes and tips on meals paid. To book the tour required a $200 deposit per person, checks payable ONLY to Carefree Vacation Services. Flight and travel protection insurance was available for purchase, it also stated. The flier also noted that any of the tours, day trips and cruises must be booked through the MiniBus Club office. Checks for the deposit to secure the Wild Wild West tour would be given to the SCC MiniBus Travel Club but made out to Carefree Vacation Services.
The MiniBus Travel Club, owned by Clara Rafinski, has been a favorite with Sun City Center residents. Customers pay $10 per person annual dues, which also pays for a monthly newsletter. The MiniBus Travel Club enables its members to travel to places safely so that members can enjoy theater, music, beautiful places, cultural events and shopping outside the area. They also booked the Wild Wild West tour for Carefree Vacation Services. The MiniBus Travel Club is much beloved by its patrons. Unwittingly, the travel club played a part by allowing Carefree Vacation Services to advertise their services through them.
On Dec. 2, 2013, Fox sent a letter to all Kings Point residents going on the tour. The letter included these highlights:
“Hello Everyone, I hope this letter finds you well and thinking about our Wild Wild West Tour scheduled for May 19, 2014. It seems like it’s a long way away but like Christmas it is coming and will be here before you know it! The purpose of this letter is to inform you that we have secured round trip flights for our Wild Wild West Tour and have purchased a block of tickets for our now SOLD OUT program. Very rarely are we able to get a Group Block this size on ANY non-stop flights with such a good air schedule so we purchased the tickets to ensure that we would not loose [sic] these flights. Because we have purchased this block of tickets, have a sold-out tour, and have an extensive wait list for this tour, we are asking for the full air payment of $599.00 pp [per person] from our booked passengers at this time. Please make checks payable to Carefree Vacations and mail them to P.O. Box 55473, St. Petersburg, Florida 33732.”
At the bottom of this letter dated Dec. 2, was written the Wild Wild West tour schedule: “Tampa – Depart: Monday, May 19, 2014. Depart Tampa non-stop to Denver. Depart Tampa: 9:20 a.m. Arrives Denver: 11:15 a.m. Las Vegas – Return, Thursday, May 29, 2014. Depart Las Vegas through Denver to Tampa. Departs Las Vegas: 1:20 p.m. through Denver. Arrives Tampa at 10:50 a.m.”
Robert and Barbara Beck of Kings Point bought the airline tickets from Fox. Some couples chose to get their own airplane tickets. The Becks also received a brochure describing extended coverage travel insurance they could purchase. They were advised to get the “elite insurance plan.” Beck said they purchased the plan because it also covered bankruptcy of the company, as well as any fraudulent practices.
Beck says he does not blame Rafinski, the MiniBus Travel Club’s owner, though he wishes she had checked out Carefree Vacation Services and Jeff Fox more thoroughly.
In an interview, Robert Beck said the travel club is “a wonderful organization. They do a wonderful thing.”
Beck said that after paying the $400 deposit for both him and his wife, they were to pay the balance over the next months until the trip was paid off.
Beck said they paid $371.56 to iTravelinsured (iTI) on their travel protection policy and a total of $4,398 to Jeff Fox, which included both the trip and the airfare. The insurance premium of $371.56 has been returned to them by iTI. They are still out $4,398, for the Wild Wild West tour that they are waiting for iTI to reimburse.
Beck said that on Friday, May 16, three days before the scheduled Monday departure, Fox held a meeting for the Wild Wild West tour at the MiniBus Travel Club, which Barbara Beck attended. Robert Beck was unable to attend. The meeting was scheduled so everyone would get their luggage tags and other incidentals would be arranged. Barbara Beck told her husband later that Fox said to the group at the time: “We have one little problem; our account was compromised.” She said that Fox compared the “problem” to what happened at the Target Department Store, whose accounts were compromised late last year.
In a letter dated May 13, and arriving after the May 16th meeting with Fox, Jake Blanchard, Fox’s attorney, wrote to the Kings Point residents under Fox’s name. Highlights of that letter sent to Robert and Barbara Beck follow:
“I know you have long anticipated our Wild West Tour, however it’s with great sadness and circumstances beyond my control that I inform you Carefree Vacations Services, Inc. has officially cancelled the Wild West Tour and will have to close its doors indefinitely. Our number one goal at this point will be getting your money back to you as soon as possible and by whatever means necessary, which would include a liquidation through bankruptcy. …
“You must know that NONE of the Group Leaders with whom you booked the Wild West Tour had any knowledge of this pending problem and their only intention is to provide all of their loyal passengers with great tours, and trips! I can assure you that I did not personally profit from this and that I am in no way trying to avoid any responsibility for this unfortunate situation.”
A postscript from Fox is added under attorney Blanchard’s information, which reads: “I humbly apologize for any loss this has caused you.”
When Fox mentions Group Leaders, he is referring to the MiniBus Travel Club.
On departure day, 35 people, showed up at the MiniBus Travel Club office in Community Hall. They were out of a vacation, which cost them a great deal of money. For some of the senior citizens, family members had saved so their loved one could take the Wild Wild West tour.
The SCC Observer tried to contact Blanchard on June 30 by phone and email for comment. Blanchard did not respond by press time, July 9.
Fox’s phone number has been disconnected, and he had not responded by press time to an emailed request for comment.
There have been numerous phone calls made to iTI, the insurance company used by many of the senior citizens who booked the Wild Wild West tour. They say they have received their premiums back, but they say they are having trouble with getting back the money they paid for the trip, and in some cases, airfare.
“He said the trip was canceled,” Barbara Sambrook said of her conversation with Fox, who called before they were to leave on the trip. “He [Fox] said he was filing for bankruptcy.”
When they called iTI, they were told everything was fine. When Charles Sambrook called the next day to get the forms to file for a refund, he was told a different story. There seemed to be confusion over whether the Sambrooks would be paid or not.
Like the Sambrooks, Robert Beck said that when he called iTI, he was told he would be helped, and later he was told his policy could not reimburse his loss because of a clause on Page 13 of his contract.
“I don’t have page 13,” Robert Beck said to the woman at iTI, he later explained.
“How did you get your insurance?” the woman at iTI asked him. “How did you know to come to us?”
It appears that only a travel agent can book this travel insurance policy with iTI, according to the policy. There have been a lot of questions asked, with few answers.
John Becker, attorney for International Medical Group, also serves iTravelinsured (iTI). He said he was unable to comment on the policies written to the Kings Point residents, when asked. Becker said he would be violating HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) laws and their clients’ confidentiality if he made comment. Becker suggested that an email be sent by this reporter to have questions answered by someone within the organization: Why did the clients purchasing the travel insurance receive back only their premium of $370; and why had they been told their policies were ineligible to receive a full refund?
The HIPAA law is the Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, which mainly oversees medical accountability. As of 2003, it added the Privacy Rule, which in some ways guarantees the privacy of the patient. It has no jurisdiction over travel insurance.
IMG, or iTI, had not called nor emailed this reporter by press time.
IMG is a global company in Indianapolis offering employer group medical insurance, long-term care medical insurance, related medical insurance packages and travel insurance since January 1990.
Bob and Linda Belanger of Kings Point did not buy the travel insurance policy. They did not feel it was necessary because their health was good. They never considered you would buy travel insurance for any other reason.
“We were kind of fragmented,” Bob Belanger said of all the Kings Point residents involved. “Some of us had insurance, and some didn’t.”
Belanger also felt safe, he said. Since they picked up the Carefree Vacation Services flier at the Sun City Center MiniBus Travel Club, Belanger thought they would be okay.
“We signed up for a trip, paid for it up front some 10 days before the trip,” Belanger explained. “Four days before we left, we received a phone call from Jeff Fox, who left a message on our phone. That’s the last we heard.”
Belanger does not feel the SCC MiniBus people are to blame, he said, but they probably should have done more due diligence.
It is also interesting that Robert Beck noticed two checks he had written to iTI and to Carefree Vacation Services were not legal, but had been cashed. Beck said the first check was made out to iTI for $371.56 for the insurance premium, but endorsed by Jeff Fox, Carefree Vacation Services owner, not iTI.
The second check was made out to Carefree Vacation Services for the $400 deposit for himself and Barbara Beck, but it was endorsed by Jeff Fox. Someone had also stamped MiniBus Travel Club over Carefree Vacation Services in the “pay to order of” box.
Robert Beck said he went to his bank in Sun City Center on July 1, and bankers there were shocked when he showed them a copy of his canceled checks and were dismayed that the checks had gone through. Bankers told Beck that checks are processed at a clearinghouse and they must not have realized the discrepancy. The bankers immediately contacted their central fraud division, and Robert and Barbara Beck will be reimbursed the value of both checks.
Robert Beck said that the MiniBus Travel Club had reimbursed him by check for the $400 deposit, but that the Becks’ attorney had cautioned them not to cash the check.
When a bank representative was contacted on July 2 to ask how this discrepancy could happen, she said that she could not comment because she would need to know more of the facts involved. However, the banker agreed the checks should not have been cashed because of the changes made.
To complicate matters, Fox applied for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection on May 14, 2014. Fox had his second day in Bankruptcy Court on June 27. In attendance that day were 12 residents from Kings Point, as well as other interested parties in the Tampa Bay area who wanted Fox to return their money for vacations they had paid for but had never materialized. Other than the Sun City Center residents and other senior citizens who paid for the Wild Wild West tour, there were more than a few of the 100 St. Petersburg Red Hatters who bought a one-day trip from Fox.
Nicole Cameron, a trustee of the Middle District of Florida Bankruptcy Court, emphasized to those in attendance on June 27 that if they wanted to be part of the bankruptcy proceedings, they would need to go online and file as a creditor, according to Robert Beck, who was one of 12 Kings Point residents attending the court proceeding.
In a June 30 phone interview, Barbara Beck said, “There were 12 of us [from Kings Point]. There was a good showing” for Jeff Fox’s hearing in Bankruptcy Court. “His [Jeff Fox’s] lawyer was there, of course. We were told to keep it civil.”
When Fox entered the courtroom, it was very comfortable, Barbara Beck said. “He even waved to us, which surprised the group.”
Barbara Beck also said that when her husband, Robert, stood up and asked Fox why he did not have a business license and insurance to run a business, Fox said to her husband, “I have them hanging on the wall.” Barbara Beck said that, at that time, she had to ask herself who was telling the truth — Jeff Fox or the Division for Consumer Services, who said he had neither.
According to both Barbara and Robert Beck, Jeff Fox told the trustee he was involved in a mom-and-pop business, and that he had the business license and insurance through the original owners.
The Better Business Bureau has a red alert on Carefree Vacations Services Inc. based on 16 factors. Two complaints were lodged with the BBB in the last three years. Sept. 8, 2013, the first complaint logged, indicates Carefree Vacation Services advertised on a flier a vacation offering a four-casino trip but on the day scheduled, the couple was only taken to two casinos. The flier also said all participants would receive “food vouchers and free money play.” The reporting party said they lost $70 on each of the two casinos, with a total of $140 lost, and were not taken to the four casinos promised on the flier. This couple also reported they called Jeff Fox and were told they would be reimbursed the $140. It had been an oversight, they were told by Fox. When they did not receive their money, they talked to the Highland Lakes Travel Club president, where they had booked the trip. The couple said their phone call was not returned.
Residents who booked the Wild Wild West tour should contact Eric Olsen at the Hillsborough County Consumer Protection Agency at 813-903-2238, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. These Kings Point residents can also deal directly with Dorcas Horne or Hilda Frazier at Division of Consumer Services in Tallahassee at 850-413-5817.
To file as a creditor of Jeff Fox and Carefree Vacations Services Inc., an application must be filled out online at www.uscourts.gov/FormsAndFees/Forms/BankruptcyForms.aspx#procedure. Creditors have 90 days to file their claim, starting from June 27, 2014.