MACON, Georgia (41NBC/WMGT) – A Macon company is at the center of a timeshare scam, but it is not one of the bad guys. The company's corporate identity was stolen and consumers were tricked out of thousands of dollars.
Michael Donnelly and his wife live in California. They own three timeshares in Mexico. Last November, they got a a call from Classic Connection Travel Company in Seattle, Washington asking if they wanted to sell.
The Donnelly's signed a contract with the travel company and Georgia Escrow Services in Atlanta, which acted as the escrow agent.
"Before we entered the contract, I checked out the Georgia Escrow Company online. I did extensive research,” Donnelly said.
He said everything about the business checked out. But two weeks before they closed the deal, the Donnelly's were told of a Mexican tax they had to pay.
"It was all very legitimate looking. I paid it, they sent me a copy that the bill was paid, it had official stamps and seals and signatures that 'Yes, that tax is paid,'” Donnelly said. “There was one new tax after another."
This went on for three months, totaling $170,000. The Donnelly's realized it was a scam when they never got paid.
"They wiped us out. We are financially ruined because of this."
The Donnelly's reached out to 41NBC's Amanda Castro for help. Castro tried calling the fake escrow company, but the number was disconnected. At first, the crooks had a legitimate looking website, but it was taken down.
"There was nothing online during the three months to indicate that this was a fraud,” Donnelly said. “There's a lot of stuff online now confirming that it's a fraud."
The Donnelly's did their homework. They checked the Better Business Bureau and the Secretary of State's website.
“Every place I turned said the Georgia Escrow was a legitimate business."
There is a real Georgia Escrow Services in Macon. John Sours, the Administrator for the Governor's Office of Consumer Protection, said the crooks stole the legitimate company's identity and changed its information on the Secretary of State's website.
"Unfortunately, official websites can sometimes be hacked and that's what happened here,” Sours said.
Donnelly blames his loss on the Secretary of State's unsecured website.
"That's a bizarre way to run a state bureaucracy...that anybody can go in and change corporate identity information and get away with what they're getting away with,” he said.
But the Secretary of State's Office said there is nothing it can do. In a statement sent to 41NBC, the agency said,
In reviewing this entity, there is a Mary Carmichael and a Karen Dirige going back and forth filing AR’s and changing officers. Georgia law states that the Secretary of State’s duty to file documents under the Corporations Code is purely ministerial. This office is not granted legal authority to conduct investigations or take enforcement action. Due to the limited administrative filing functions of this office, our Corporations Division is not authorized to correct, change or remove a filed document unless our office receives a court order directing us to do so. We encouraged customers to contact the Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection which will investigate business complaints at 404-651-8600...Additionally, we have implemented an email notification system that sends email updates to every email address associated with a registered entity when changes are made to the entity’s filing information.
But Donnelly believes it is up to the state to protect its businesses and consumers.
“They need to have better security,” he said. “We're going to have to sell our home, cut our expenses. So it is totally ruined, changed, altered our life in a way that we had no idea about because we entered in this contract with what we thought was a legitimate business."
To be clear, the real Georgia Escrow Services in Macon is a legitimate company that does not sell timeshares. 41NBC reached out to the owner, but our call for a comment was not returned.
Sours said the Governor's Office of Consumer Protection is working with several local, state, and federal agencies on this scam. Authorities believe the crooks are most likely out of the country. He adds the Donnelly's probably won't see their money again.
If you are a business and believe your corporate identity was stolen, the Secretary of State's Office offers tips for victims, including changing the information on its website immediately as well as contacting law enforcement and the Governor's Office of Consumer Protection.
To protect yourself from becoming a victim of a similar scam, Sours said you should watch for some red flags. He said the biggest warning is you are contacted by a company wanting to sell your timeshare, instead of you reaching out to them. More warning signs include paying for services up front and not getting any buyers. The Governor's Office of Consumer Protection also offers more tips here.