Spring breakers coming down to Miami Beach expecting to spend a little time in their pre-paid hotel rooms are becoming the victims of a scammer who's renting out units at addresses that don't exist.
But the man suspected of being behind the scam is claiming he has nothing to do with it even though e-mails given to NBC Miami show Robert Pham is using his real name, cell phone and e-mail address in corresponding with the unsuspecting victims who saw the ads for non-existent condos on Craigslist.
The victims are generally younger visitors coming to Miami and South Beach for spring break and music festivals. They make tempting victims because they are from out of town or out of the country, they are generally younger and less able to hire a lawyer, and the amount of the cash they lose is under $1,000 making it a lower priority for overworked police.
The ads tout exclusive locations on or near Ocean Drive on South Beach for unbelievably low prices: $125 and $130 per night. NBC Miami checked the addresses used in the Craigslist ads and found that most are fakes.
At 78 Ocean Court, there's nothing but an alley. The address at 178 Ocean Drive is, well, a corner. The closest thing to 1406 Ocean Court is a utility box.
And 320 Ocean Drive is the only location that is an actual building. But it's boarded up and, well, it doesn't even have a doorknob. It is a condemned building.
Keisha Taylor arrived at Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport from San Antonio with friend Jaundrea Clay, ready for a week in South Beach and unaware that she'd been duped.
"I rented the hotel room online on Craigslist, everything seemed legit," Taylor said. "I'm very, very shocked," said Keisha.
"But I'm not shocked,” said Clay. “Because he did a very good job."
"I feel really upset about it," Taylor continued. “I'm really upset about it because it's just, you know, you're here on vacation. You want don't expect something like this to happen."
Taylor said the scam includes a bogus contract, and that the two paid $337 up front. They even sent Pham text messages.
And then? They drove to South Beach and got to see their condo at 320 Ocean Drive, the boarded up and condemned building.
"Wow!" exclaimed Taylor, mouth agape. "Yes, I just feel like does he have a conscience at all?"
"Now what?" said Clay, pointing out that they do not have anywhere to stay during one of the most crowded weekends of the year. The two stood on the sidewalk, luggage in hand, outside the TGIF at 5th and Ocean wondering what to do next.
And NBC Miami found other victims.
"I'm pissed!" said Priti Ghandi, pointedly. She, her husband and a friend had just arrived in South Beach from New York City to find 78 Ocean Court does not exist.
"It confirmed my worst suspicions that this was a scam," said Rozy Fredericks. She said she had a feeling something was not right. Fortunately, they have friends here where they can stay.
E-mails given to NBC Miami show more than 2,500 inquiries were sent in connection with the fake ads. It's unclear just how many are sending money to rent non-existent condos. But payments went as high as $875 and were sent via PayPal, credit card or Western Union.
So, when learned Pham would be at a sidewalk café near downtown Miami, NBC Miami caught up with him, showing him documents with his name, cell phone number and e-mail address on them.
"That's not mine...that's not my number," Pham said.
When asked if his name was Robert Pham, and if he was renting out condos at fake addresses, Pham denied the scam.
"Yeah, but that's not -- I didn't do those things," Pham stammered. "I don't, that's not mine. That's not me. I don't know, that's not me. I'm telling the truth."
Pham eventually left after threatening NBC Miami with his lawyer.
As for Taylor and Clay, the folks at Miami's luxurious InterContinental Hotel gave them three nights free, during peak season.
"Welcome to our hotel,” said a front desk clerk not knowing how that resonated with the victims, who said in unison, "Thank you! You have no idea!”
"And we just felt that it was the right thing to do,” said InterContinental Hotel General Manager Robert Hill, "to make sure they had a place to stay, and that they could continue to enjoy their vacation, head back to Texas and tell people about how great Miami is."
Sources tell NBC Miami that Pham continues – as late as Wednesday evening - to perpetuate the scam by e-mailing or texting unsuspecting victims. Those Craigslist ads, however, appear to have been removed.
Miami Beach police detectives are investigating Pham in this case, and say they've made arrests on similar cases before.
As new victims of the scam continue arriving in South Florida, police say it's crucial they file police reports in their case against Pham or other suspects.