JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A woman accused of selling pilgrimages to religious sites, then canceling the trips without refunding the victims' money, has been arrested, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said.
Maria Constanza Shults, 62, of Jacksonville, is accused of offering trips to Catholic parishioners to holy sites in countries such as Israel, Italy and Portugal throughout 2015.
Shults collected payments averaging $2,500 to $7,000 from the victims and then canceled the trips without refunding their money, authorities said.
“Preying on people’s religious faith to defraud them will not be tolerated, and my Office of Statewide Prosecution will aggressively prosecute this case,” Attorney General Pam Bondi said. “Thanks to a great partnership with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, this travel fraud scheme has been shut down.”
Through its investigation, which began in September 2015, FDLE identified 27 victims in multiple areas in North and Central Florida with a total loss of over $106,000.
“Fraud can take many forms, and in this case, it preyed on the trust of unsuspecting Florida citizens,” FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen said. “FDLE is committed to fighting this crime and I am grateful for the hard work of our agents and the diligence of the Office of the Attorney General.”
Shults was arrested Friday on one count of organized scheme to defraud in excess of $50,000, and booked into the Duval County Jail.
News4Jax stopped by Shults' last known address on Monday and met with a man who said he rented the home to Shults.
"(The) only thing I know is that she rented here and I believed she work at McDonald's," said the homeowner, who wished to remain anonymous.
The Diocese of St. Augustine released a statement about Shults' arrest:
The Diocese of St. Augustine generally does not sponsor tours and if we do, it would be clearly marked as such. We encourage everyone to be aware of such scams and to do their due diligence in checking the tour group out first, or contact their pastor or the Catholic Center to see if the parish or diocese is hosting the group. Otherwise, we urge that buyers beware.
According to the Better Business Bureau, travel agents have to be licensed in the state of Florida and they have to provide a written contract with that license number on it.
“If these people had done a little investigation before handing over their money, they would have found out this woman wasn’t a licensed travel agent," said Tom Stephens, president of the Northeast Florida Better Business Bureau.
To avoid falling victim, the Better Business Bureau encourages people to do their homework by researching a travel company or person claiming to be a travel agent before handing over any money, and ask for references.
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