Black market for tickets is dark side of theme park tourism
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Roberto Alvarez was jealous of the amount of time his girlfriend spent with the head of a crime family that dealt in millions of dollars of contraband, so he became a confidential informant for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Not long after talking with the agents, the 38-year-old Alvarez was shot to death; his body was found in a pool of blood 15 feet from the bus he drove in his job shuttling tourists to the theme parks.
If it had been guns or drugs that Alvarez was snitching about, his unsolved murder would have had a familiar ring. But, in an only-in-Orlando scenario, Alvarez was helping investigators track down theme park tickets illegally purchased with fake or stolen credit cards.
A black market for park tickets has grown up in this theme park mecca with illegal transactions occurring every day in the heart of its fantasy-fueled tourist district. Law enforcement officials don't keep track on the exact amount lost to the underground market or arrests made from theme park ticket fraud, and the theme parks won't release such figures. But Detective Kelly Boaz of the Orange County Sheriff's Office said it's a multimillion-dollar business.
"There is a lot of money out there in this type of activity," said Boaz, who works in a seven-person special unit dedicated to the theme parks.
This underground market is an unintended consequence of annual ticket-price increases and the popularity of multi-day passes that have made the tickets very valuable. A single-day ticket to a park costs almost $60, while a four-day park hopper, granting entry into all four Disney parks in Orlando, can cost $220 a person.
"The theme parks have always been an incredible experience that some people treat as a commodity," said Universal Orlando spokesman Tom Schroder. "So as long as there have been theme parks and theme park tickets, there have been people trying to take advantage of that."
The black market also has been fueled by the proliferation of booths selling discounted tickets in almost every major hotel and restaurant or in front of every tacky T-shirt shop in Orlando's tourist district.
The area's major theme parks -- Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando -- often sell tickets discounted 10 percent off the gate price to timeshare companies, AAA and other tourism-related businesses. International tour companies get an even better deal from the theme parks -- as much as 20 percent off the gate price.
Tricks of the trade
But those 20 percent-off contracts are limited and highly coveted. So companies, in violation of their agreements with the parks, often sell their tickets to middlemen ticket brokers or to booths that can't get the discount.
Some of the shady ticket dealers sell multiday park tickets to tour groups at discounted prices, provided the groups bring back the passes at the end of a single day. The passes are then resold at discount the next day. Others target tourists, selling multiday park passes that have days already used up, Boaz said.
"It's all a big game out there," said Franklin Fox, who was once described by law enforcement as the ringleader of illegal ticket brokers. "Everybody knows what's going on."
Law enforcement agencies have tried to stop black market ticket-brokers much like they would drug dealers. They've targeted street level sellers in an effort to catch those higher up the chain. They've used secret informants, surveillance and undercover agents posing as illegal ticket scalpers or clueless tourists.
"What we've been doing for the last few years is plugging the dam, going after the smaller dealers that we get to," Boaz said. "We have been trying for the last few years to work our way up to higher folks, but they've isolated themselves so well and have been under the radar for so long, it was difficult."
A close friend, who himself was caught in a sting operation and agreed to cooperate with authorities last year, persuaded Fox to purchase 210 tickets that supposedly had been illegally printed by a worker inside Universal Studios, according to court records. Fox, 70, took the bait and was charged with six counts of dealing in stolen property. Detectives seized $250,000 worth of theme park tickets from his office.
Fox pleaded no contest to two counts of petit theft late last year and was sentenced to a year of probation, which was terminated in June. He denied dealing in stolen tickets, calling his arrest a police set up, and said he made a plea to avoid a trial.
Alvarez started talking, off and on, with authorities in late 2000 about schemes run by Victor Aquino, who used fake or stolen credit cards to purchase theme park tickets.
The operation was made up of Aquino's family members and associates. It included Aquino's teenage son, Amin, who along with a former pizza cook, Mario Locasio, would buy tickets with stolen or fake credit cards provided by Victor Aquino. Aquino would sell the tickets to Roberto Alvarez's girlfriend, Marilu Clement, who then supplied brokers like Franklin Fox or different travel agencies, according to depositions from Clement's criminal case.
"Victor Aquino would hand her black bags and stacks of Disney tickets and things like this, which I thought was very suspicious and stuff," Locasio said in a 2003 deposition.
Alvarez was gunned down in July 2001. The group's schemes fell apart as members of the operation, one by one, were arrested in 2002.
Clement, who currently is serving probation for fraud, claimed she never knew the tickets were purchased with bad credit cards. Amin Aquino was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison for fraud, while his father, Victor, was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison for trying to run over a sheriff's deputy with a Mercedes.
Alvarez's murder may be an extreme case, and authorities won't comment on it since the case is still open and unsolved.
"The underlying fact of the investigation into his death indicates ... that's the motive ... because he was informing for the FDLE," homicide investigator Richard Lallament of the Orange County Sheriff's Office said in a 2003 deposition. "It was made to look like a botched robbery but nothing is missing. It just doesn't make any sense."