Admitting that he tricked owners of time-shares into believing he could get them out of their mortgage contracts when he really couldn't, Francis Santore, 53, pleaded guilty in federal court on Tuesday to fraud and conspiring to commit fraud.
The case, before U.S. District Judge Noel L. Hillman in Camden, is part of a larger case brought by the U.S. Attorney's Office involving an alleged time-share resale scam conducted by the Vacation Ownership Group.
Also known as VO Group L.L.C., the company had offices in Egg Harbor Township and Mays Landing, N.J., according to the indictment. Santore, of Northfield, N.J., was an employee.
The case falls into a national pattern of scams tied to time-share reselling, said Howard Nusbaum, president of the American Resort Development Association, a trade group with offices in Washington.
Similar cases have taken place in Florida and Nevada, according to the association's website.
Nusbaum said time-share business trends have provided an opportunity for scams.
"Our industry is about to turn 40 years old," he said, "and there is a generational shift in ownership."
Some owners bought their time-shares when they were in their 40s and 50s, he said.
Now they are in their 80s and 90s, ready to sell because they aren't traveling or they need the money. "As people age, their ability to discern a fraud" diminishes, he said. "People are preying on the elderly."
Nusbaum said that the market for time-shares grew steadily until September 2008. Time-share unit sales dropped by a third in one year, from more than $9 billion in 2008 to $6.3 billion in 2009. Nearly 40 percent of the sales force moved on, Nusbaum said.
Some of those people are involved in the scams, Nusbaum said, although he said he had no specific knowledge of the people involved in the VO case.
On Tuesday, Santore admitted that working with prepared scripts, he would lie to customers, giving them the impression that he was affiliated with a bank or lending institution and would be able to get them out of their time-share mortgage contracts.
For example, in October 2010, Santore, also known as Frank Martin, spoke with a customer identified in court as "CM."
CM had hired the VO Group to get him out of his $18,000 time-share mortgage, but was having second thoughts. CM worried that getting out of the mortgage would hurt his credit rating.
Santore, the court papers said, so "reassured" CM that instead of canceling his contract with VO, CM sent VO a check for $8,562 to resolve the mortgage even though there was nothing that VO could do to get CM out of his mortgage.
VO's owners, Adam and Ashley Lacerda, have been charged with setting up the VO conspiracy, defrauding customers of $3 million. They have pleaded not guilty.
Santore admitted causing $70,000 in losses. He also pleaded guilty to lying to the California unemployment system to collect $16,200 in benefit checks while working for VO.
He faces up to 20 years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and restitution. Sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 13.