New Jersey couple accused of running $700,000 travel scam

April 23, 2013 2:32:39 PM PDT
A southern New Jersey couple who ran eight travel companies over four years, opening and shutting them as complaints rolled in, have been charged with cheating hundreds of customers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars by selling phony vacation membership packages and collecting fees in advance on supposedly free travel.

State prosecutors said Tuesday that Daryl Turner, 41, and his wife, Robyn Bernstein, 43, of Marlton, never intended to deliver on their offers of free cruises and airfare, or on the big discounts they promised came with their vacation membership packages.

Turner and Bernstein are accused of laundering $700,000 of the proceeds through personal bank accounts to buy their Marlton mansion, upon which authorities have placed a lien. The government also previously seized three high-end cars - a Bentley, a Ferrari and a Range Rover - from the couple.

In an indictment returned Friday and announced Tuesday, both were charged with conspiracy, money laundering and theft by deception. Turner is also charged with four counts of failing to file state income tax returns, and Bernstein with a single count.

A lawyer for Turner said his client "denies any fraudulent activity." A message left for Bernstein's lawyer was not returned.

"Like a pair of old-school con artists," Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa said, "Turner and Bernstein allegedly operated eight different travel companies in a little over four years, closing one company down and opening another in a new location whenever they felt the heat because consumers learned of their fraud."

Authorities said the couple falsely promised large discounts to those who bought vacation packages that typically cost between $2,200 and $6,500.

They also advertised free cruises and airfares for two, but had each customer pay deposits on a variety of supposed fees and surcharges, collecting nearly $150,000 through the scheme, prosecutors said.

The couple used mass postcard mailings with a phone number for customers to call. When individuals phoned in, they were told to come in for what authorities called high-pressure 90-minute presentations, where they had to fill out forms and later mail in money orders.

Authorities said it was difficult to keep up with the couple because they would open and shut back-to-back businesses quickly.

"It was like a leap frog effect," said Richard Loufik, an investigator for the Attorney General's Office.

Officials said nearly 1,000 complaints have been made by customers and that there could be more.

The State Division of Consumer Affairs filed its first complaint against Turner in 2009.

In February 2011, officials said, Turner agreed to pay more than $3 million to settle the complaint, including more than $2 million in restitution, and agreed to stay out of the travel business for five years. Prosecutors said the money has not yet been paid.

After the settlement, authorities found he was involved with another travel company owned by his wife, and he was arrested on theft charges in July 2011.

The most serious charges of money laundering and conspiracy each carry prison sentences of 10 to 20 years. Money laundering also carries fines and penalties up to $1 million.