A couple of weeks ago, 21-year-old Juan Rivera was listening to his favorite station, New York's 97.9 La Mega, when an excited voice announced a contest: "Answer this trivia question first, and you'll win a four-day trip to Orlando!"
Rivera was engaged to marry in July and on the hunt for a honeymoon spot, so he perked up. "What animal that is not a bird lays eggs?" the announcer asked. Rivera grabbed his phone, dialed an 800 number, and blurted out, "Snakes!"
He was headed to Disney World, an excited phone operator told him. All he had to do was pay a few hundred dollars in taxes. Not until weeks passed and the tickets never arrived did Rivera realize the truth: "I've been scammed."
He's not alone. Hundreds of other Spanish-language radio and TV fans across the nation were suckered by the faux-trivia contests. Prosecutors last week sued the two Doral-based companies they say are responsible: All Dream Vacations and VGC Corporation.
More than 400 victims lost hundreds of dollars each in the scam, says Jennifer Davis, a spokeswoman for Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who, along with the Federal Trade Commission, sued the firms.
VGC was founded in 2004 by Violeta and Cesar Gonzalez and operated out of an address a few blocks south of Doral Boulevard, on 82nd Avenue. All Dream Vacations was registered three years later to the same address by Samir Jose Saer Rodriguez.
Attorneys for all three owners declined to comment on the FTC's lawsuit or the complaints.
Around January 2008, prosecutors say, the three owners began running a battery of ads on Spanish media. In one typical TV spot, a high-pitched noise sounded before a series of pictures of Disney World. The first 30 callers to answer this question -- "What other name did Mexican comedian Mario Moreno use?" -- would win a trip to Orlando, the ad promised.
Like Rivera, callers who answered "Cantinflas" were told they'd have to pay a few hundred in taxes. When their tickets never came, they were told they were disqualified for some reason. The taxes? Unrefundable.
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Internet message boards are littered with complaints about the scams. "Like a dummy, I called my favorite station, 93.1, when they told me I could win a vacation if I could name a country without a in the name," writes a victim named Anthony. "I told them 'Mexico,' and after that, they asked for my credit card, and me as a dummy got scammed."
Rivera, too, is desperate to get his money back. With a civil case pending, a federal receiver has taken over both businesses. But no one knows when, or if, the hundreds of victims will recoup their loss.
"I work very hard for my money," Rivera says. "I don't even know how to tell my fiancée about this."