For years the I-Team has been chasing a group of travel scammers around the state who promise big savings if you join their pricey travel club, but the deals never materialize and they disappear.
Chief investigative reporter Eric Parker uncovered new information on the group as the man in charge gets ready to head to prison.
The I-Team has been chasing them around Connecticut for years. In Windsor, North Haven and Bridgeport the I-Team busted these scammers over and over.
Originally calling themselves Travel Deals, they lured consumers with postcards promising travel bargains, invited people to a high-pressure sales seminar and then sold worthless memberships in a bogus travel club, often for thousands of dollars.
The bargains were fake but the lost money was all too real. Every time the I-Team tracked them down, they would call the state Department of Consumer Protection to see if they were on the case, and they were.
The state DCP has been investigating them for years, and yet the scammers didn't stop.
"Most of these operators aren't located here, and the most effective law enforcement tools are in those jurisdictions where you can get physical custody of the people involved," DCP Commissioner William Rubenstein said.
But there was an arrest, and not in Connecticut.
Daryl Turner has never been spotted by the I-Team on Connecticut soil. He was the mastermind behind Travel Deals, and he's been busted in his home state of New Jersey.
Karin Price Mueller of the Newark Star-Ledger has been tracking Turner as long as the I-Team's been tracking his henchmen.
She was in court when he finally faced a judge.
"During one of his court appearances, I went over and introduced myself, but he didn't want to talk to me," she said.
"That's the same thing that happens to us," Parker responded. "So funny."
First Turner promised to leave the travel business for good and to pay back customers. When that didn't happen, he and his wife both got arrested and both faced 20 years behind bars, until they recently cut a plea deal.
"The state is supposed to be recommending seven years in prison for Mr. Turner. His wife, Ms. Bernstein, should be getting five years probation," Price Mueller said.
The good news for Connecticut is that Turner's arrest seems to have dried up reports of travel scammers in the state, and Rubenstein said that shows his agency's efforts are working.
"We're much better off nipping it in the bud rather than chasing these people around after the fact trying to get money back, in that sense it's almost a whack-a-mole game," he said. "New Jersey has this pretty well in hand. They've shut down the operation and they've brought charges against Mr. Turner. Each state doesn't have to duplicate efforts."
But New Jersey does have one big advantage. They didn't just shut Turner down, they appear to be on the verge of getting an awful lot of money back for consumers - maybe more than $2 million.
"The state had already put a lien on their [$750,000] home in New Jersey, taken a bunch of bank accounts and seized five luxury cars, including a Ferrari, and a speedboat. So all that property will be turned over to the state," Price Mueller said.
But Connecticut appears to have been without a local ringleader. Rubenstein said the scammers here would show up, take people's money and head back out of state.
There were no homes or cars to seize because they were somewhere else.
"This money is long gone," Rubenstein said. "These hucksters are used to doing hit-and-run, being gone by the time anybody can go through the legal process to get redress."
In New Jersey and here in Connecticut, the expectation is that travel scams will eventually resurface with a different ringleader because they're really lucrative. In an effort to protect customers, officials at the Department of Consumer Protection are turning their attention to the companies that mail out promises of travel bargains and draw customers to the seminars.
The hope is that shutting those companies down will end this scam for good.
If it doesn't, let the I-Team know and they'll be happy pay them a visit.
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