JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Words like “allegedly” or “suspected” are no longer needed as we continue to tell the tale of Juan Arteaga, the man at the center of an I-TEAM investigation that began nearly three years ago. The 58-year-old admitted in a Jacksonville federal courtroom Wednesday to orchestrating a nationwide travel scheme to take hundreds of thousands of dollars from friends, business contacts, and referrals. He promised to book discounted trips and vacations but instead, spent money he took from customers on himself.
The I-TEAM’s first investigation into Arteaga was in January 2019 when Nathan Dee recounted how he and family members lost thousands of dollars when they paid Arteaga cash up front for a family reunion cruise that was never actually booked. In all, they lost around $14,000.
The I-TEAM spoke with Dee today following Arteaga’s plea.
“It seems like a good, important first step,” Dee said. “I mean, mostly wanted to make sure he was stopped from continuing to do this.”
Following our initial story, dozens of others from around the country reached out to the I-TEAM with similar stories. Families, couples, and individuals told us how Arteaga required them to pay him in advance to receive big discounts on things like flights, hotels, amusement park tickets and luxury vacations but their trips were never booked, and their money wasn’t returned.
Some said they even received their itineraries from Arteaga, so they had no idea there were any issues until they tried to check in at the airport, or their hotel, or their cruise ship – where they learned they didn’t have reservations, and nothing had been paid for.
Jaime Rowe from Pennsylvania was one of the customers who reached out to the I-TEAM during the early weeks of our investigation. She and her friends were planning a trip to Italy, and had wired more than $12,000 to Arteaga just two days before our story first broke.
“You know, I have to call my friends and say, I just had a guy steal our money,” Rowe said. “We can’t go.”
A state investigation later led to a federal one led by the FBI, and last month, Arteaga was charged with wire fraud – a charge he admitted to Wednesday.
Court documents outlined how -- beginning at least as early as March 2018 and through at least January 2019 -- Arteaga operated as a travel agent, despite not being licensed. He received payments from victims through checks and wire transfers and spent that money on things like credit card bills, his mortgage, nursing home expenses and short-term loans.
The government said he was able to pull off this “sham” travel operation for as long as he did because he operated a pyramid-type scheme -- using funds from some victims to purchase travel arrangements for other victims.
When the judge asked Arteaga if this is what he did, Arteaga replied “yes.” When asked if he acted with an intent to defraud, Arteaga replied “yes.”
The specific case leading to the charge of wire fraud involved longtime friends of Arteaga who started talking with him in 2018 about booking an around-the-world trip through Road Scholar. The couple had previously booked travel through Arteaga, and he told them the trip would cost around $100,000, but if they paid him the next day, he could get it for $60,000. Prosecutors said Arteaga told them to pay him $20,000, broken into five check payments, and wire the remaining $40,000 to him.
Months later, the couple checked with Road Scholar to see if their trip had been booked. They were told it had not, and also learned that the trip provider didn’t provide any discounts, including to travel agents. Prosecutors said Arteaga used their money to make travel arrangements for other victims and himself, as well as to repay other travel victims.
Nearly seven full pages of the plea agreement are devoted to listing the victims of the scheme, identifying them by their initials, along with the minimum amounts they are owed in restitution. The amounts ranged from at least $300 to at least $23,862. In all, Arteaga will owe at least $779,000 in restitution to the victims.
Meantime, the judge granted Arteaga a $10,000 unsecured bond – which means he didn’t have to come up with any money for his release. As part of his bond conditions, the judge ordered Arteaga to surrender his passport, and limit his travel to the court’s Middle District of Florida, which includes Jacksonville, as well as parts of Texas, which is where Arteaga now lives.
The I-TEAM peppered Arteaga with questions as he was leaving the courthouse, but he refused to answer, and shielded his face as he walked several blocks through downtown with his attorney.
At sentencing, Arteaga faces up to 20 years in prison, a fine of $250,000, and up to three years of supervised release. A date for sentencing has not yet been set.