A sultry hostess, a seedy nightclub and an amorous out-of-towner with a loose grip on his credit card. According to the FBI, "b girls" at six Miami Beach clubs who were part of an international crime ring used that recipe to defraud nearly 100 male tourists out of as much as $43,000 at a time.
"This international organized crime group has victimized tourists and defrauded them of tens of thousands of dollars," said John V. Gillies, Special Agent in Charge of the Miami field office of the FBI. "The crimes this group committed have impacted our south Florida community and our economy. The dismantlement and disruption of this organized crime group reaffirms the FBI's and our law enforcement partner's commitment to remove organized crime from our neighborhoods."
"South Florida, by virtue of its geography, is a gateway for domestic and international travel and business," U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Wifredo Ferrer said. "Unfortunately, we also attract criminal elements, including transnational criminal organizations and groups like the one involved in this South Beach tourist scam. ... Without hesitation, I can tell you that our investigations into transnational criminal organizations operating in South Florida will continue."
Earlier this month, the FBI arrested six men and 10 alleged "b girls" linked to the scheme on federal charges that include wire fraud, immigration fraud and bribery. If convicted, the defendants could face up to 20 years in prison for each wire fraud count, 10 years for each immigration fraud count and 15 years for each bribery count. Federal authorities are still seeking nightclub operator Alex Simchuk, a suspect who remains at large.
Authorities say the "b girls," from Estonia, Latvia and Russia, were chosen for their beauty and brought to the U.S. expressly to prey on tourists. Working in pairs they would look for marks at swanky South Beach hotels like the Delano or the Clevelander and then entice them to one of the nightclubs.
At the clubs, according to the FBI, the bar girls would order their guests multiple bottles of liquor, wine or champagne at exorbitant prices -- as much as $5,000 -- often without the knowledge of the patron. The girls would pour drinks into plants, ice buckets or other large containers so that the guest would be sure to order more. Later the victim would find thousands of dollars of mysterious charges on his credit card bill.
A victim from Philadelphia identified in the U.S. Attorney's criminal complaint only as "J.B." was hit with the biggest credit card bill of the 88 alleged marks. J.B. was approached at the Delano Hotel in March 2010 by two females. He says he had drinks with them, but then his memory became vague.
According to the complaint, "His fuzzy recollection was of people physically holding him up at an unknown location and having him sign something three times."
The same thing allegedly happened the next night. J.B. learned a few days later that his credit card had been charged $43,000 for items that included a painting on the bar's wall. He continues to dispute the credit card charges and alleges that he was drugged by the women.
According to authorities, the club where his recollections grew fuzzy was called the Caviar Bar, and was operated by Simchuk and another man.
Undercover Agent Posed As Corrupt Cop
On many occasions, says the complaint, victims were either too drunk to sign a credit card receipt or staff at the club would forge the signature at the end of the night. If a guest complained the next morning, managers at the club would explain that he had ordered all of the drinks and show him receipts and surveillance video from the club threatening to call the local police if the tab wasn't paid.
The bar girls, who worked in pairs, allegedly split an average 20 percent cut, while managers and bartenders each received 10 percent.
The clubs themselves, say authorities, were merely fronts for the rip-offs. They weren't open to the public, and any would-be customer who wasn't accompanied by a pair of bar girls was denied entrance. The men running the clubs allegedly arranged to have the bar girls brought to the U.S. and housed them in apartments while they participated in the scam. In some cases, the women were trained overseas before coming to the Miami area.
The FBI's investigation of the clubs involved an undercover agent who posed as a corrupt local police officer who moonlighted as a bouncer. According to the complaint, the duties of the undercover "bouncer" included checking IDs of the bar girls at the door, pretending he didn't know them and making sure victims paid their bills by identifying himself as a police officer.
The undercover agent also obtained pills at some of the clubs, including an herbal sleep aid and capsules believed to be tranquilizers, according to the complaint. He was told by alleged coconspirators that at least one of the women had drugged victims in the past.
The clubs involved were all located along Washington Avenue in South Miami Beach. Caviar Bar was closed after American Express got so many complaints of fraudulent charges that it shut off the bar's merchant account, but the club reopened three months later as Stars Lounge and allegedly continued the scheme until it was shut down again for the same reason. Other clubs included Nowhere Bar, Steel Toast and the Tangia Club.