JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – An out-of-state family contacts the I-TEAM for help, saying they gave thousands of dollars to a Jacksonville man who promised to book their cruise at a discount. But nearly two months after giving him the cash, they fear they'll never get what they paid for, or see that money again.
Nathan Dee lives in Arizona and he and his brothers and mother are planning a family reunion cruise to Alaska in June in honor of their father.
"This was a trip that we were taking because my father passed away two years ago, this was a trip that they were always going to do together and didn’t get around to, so after he passed away at on everybody’s radar and this was our first chance to make it work for the entire family and to get everybody out there," Dee told the I-TEAM.
Dee says his brother's neighbor recommended they call Juan Arteaga -- who lives in Jacksonville -- who can book trips at a lower price.
"This was an opportunity to save maybe a few more dollars," Dee told the I-TEAM.
One brother gave Arteaga (pictured right) $1,000 to book his cruise reservation -- which Arteaga did. So, other family members gave him another $12,500 to book for all 14 of them.
They sent the money to Arteaga in the beginning of December via Apple Pay and wire transfers. But more than a month later, no reservations -- except for the one brother -- have been made.
"Within about 3 to 4 days we begin checking in and that’s when he became difficult to reach," Dee said.
"Did your gut ever tell you something wasn't right?" we asked.
"He said he was in the hospital and he needed time. And then after that, every week there is a new reason why there was delays," Dee answered.
After Dee contacted the I-TEAM, we found it's not the first time Arteaga’s been accused of taking money but not booking the trip.
The Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services - which oversees travel agents doing business in the state - is investigating two consumer complaints from August and September 2018: a Disney World trip for $4,600 and a Disney Bahamas cruise for $2,100. In both cases, the families say they paid Arteaga for their vacations in full but their reservations weren’t actually completed.
The state agency also disclosed a 2006 investigation into whether Arteaga was working as a travel agent. An investigative report said he denied he was doing that. In Florida, travel agents must be registered and bonded in order to operate -- no matter where the client is from or where the client is going.
But we learned from a state spokesman that Arteaga, “...has neither registered with the Department nor posted bond to operate this travel business.”
The I-TEAM went by Arteaga's Fort Caroline home, but no one answered the door. Court records show it was in foreclosure and a current real estate listing shows there’s a pending offer from a buyer.
We also found he has filed for bankruptcy, too -- three separate times. In 2016, a judge ordered him to pay $60,000 to another family that never got three vacations they paid for.
"If we could prevent somebody else from falling into the same trap, that would be worthwhile to us," said Dee.
State agents with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which regulates travel agents, are still investigating Arteaga. The department’s commissioner, Nikki Fried, gave us this statement:
“Protecting consumers from fraud and scams is one of our top priorities. Anyone found to be violating the law or taking advantage of Floridians will be held accountable. We are aware of this situation, and the matter is under investigation by our department’s law enforcement professionals.”
The I-TEAM has been trying to get in touch with Arteaga – calling him several times in the past two days. We will update this story if he returns our calls.