ST. PETERSBURG (FOX 13) - She was a travel agent, promising the vacations of a lifetime, but Janet Bender left her clients with worthless cruise vouchers and empty pockets.
Now, she faces charges related to defrauding nine customers.
For a while she was a legitimate travel agent, who was friends with some of the people she served, but detectives said she realized she could get away with quick cash, and did, until people started realizing their vouchers were worthless.
The offer sounded great to Pamela Larson: Six nights, a balcony room, from anywhere in Florida, for $300 dollars.
"I had done business with her before," Larson recalled, adding she accepted several of Janet Bender's supposed deals: $400 for a cruise, $500 for an all-inclusive hotel, all paid in cash.
The vouchers, Bender said, were given to her as thanks from cruise companies because she was a top saleswoman for CruiseOne.
The vouchers were signed and confirmation numbers forwarded.
"It [was] all right [t]here in print," said Larson. "It is identical to what I had previously gotten from her for other cruises. Didn't think anything of it."
But sheriff's deputies said the documents she handed out - or emailed - were forged. Bender was arrested for allegedly taking $5,000 from nine additional victims, mostly from Pinellas County.
Some didn't realize they'd been had until they showed up for cruises all over the world.
"A few of the victims found themselves in Barcelona without the hotel accommodations they were promised," said Pinellas County Det. Brian Ward. "[Along with] the cruise in the Mediterranean."
FOX 13 tried reaching Bender, even knocking on her door, but it went unanswered.
Meanwhile, Larson is out $3,700.
"For her to lie to me, when I actually even asked her, and with a straight face," she said.
Larson said she knew Bender for 20 years, and took a real cruise she booked just two years ago.
Why did she go from travel agent to imposter?
"I have no idea," Larson said.
CruiseOne, which operates out of Fort Lauderdale, said Bender was an associate at an "independent location."
Larson wants her money back from the company, but its statement to FOX 13 News did not say if it was willing to give a refund.
CruiseOne is a travel franchise that has been in business for more than 20 years and each location is independently owned and operated. Janet Bender was an Associate of one of these independent locations. CruiseOne and its franchisees pride itself on integrity and creating memorable vacation experiences so we are very concerned about these unfortunate situations. We have been cooperating with local authorities on their investigation. We encourage any impacted customers who worked with Janet Bender as part of the CruiseOne-Gonzalez & Associates location to contact their local authorities and the CruiseOne corporate office at 954-958-3700 and press 2 for Support Services.