Polk travel agent bilked more than 60 people in $1.6M scam
WINTER HAVEN — A Winter Haven woman was arrested by Polk County Sheriff’s Office deputies on Thursday, accused of scamming more than 60 customers out of $1.6 million.
Jaleeann Johnston, 42, was arrested after an investigation found that she had stolen or misappropriated the money, PCSO spokesman Brian Bruchey said in a news release Friday.
Detectives say Johnston used her position as an office manager and travel agent for Cruise Link Travel in Winter Haven to take advantage of 64 individuals — including her employer, who is a relative of hers.
“The biggest victim by far was Johnston’s employer, who was also a close relative — her own flesh and blood,” Sheriff Grady Judd said. “She more or less destroyed the woman’s business and brought about substantial monetary losses and grief to her customers. Johnston’s scheme was unsustainable, and her greed just kept burying her deeper.”
On Nov. 13, 2018, a customer reported to the Sheriff’s Office that they had put a $339 deposit down on a cruise. The person said they never received the cruise, nor a refund, Bruchey said. Detectives say they discovered that one of the people who was supposed to go on the cruise with that customer then received a credit card charge of about $13,000.
Similar cases were uncovered, Bruchey said.
Detectives said that Johnston used the operational account for Cruise Link Travel for day-to-day business and personal expenditures, and she used other people’s bank information to fund her lifestyle and cover the costs of other cruises, Bruchey said.
Johnston then would cover her tracks by shifting the blame to other businesses involved in the transactions, he said.
Most of the people who suffered losses did so through fraudulent use of their credit card information, Bruchey said. But most financial institutions were able to give chargebacks so there were minimal or no financial losses. Barclay Bank, Chase Card Services and IAA Credit Union suffered losses.
Detectives said that money had been moved around by Johnston through accounts with Citizens Bank and Trust, CenterState Bank and TD Bank.
Johnston also is accused of transferring money through the accounts of Florida Best Peaches and Cruise Link Travel — companies owned by a close relative of Johnston. The relative was the person who suffered the bulk of the losses, totaling about $1.3 million, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
During a review of accounts associated with Cruise Link Travel, Florida Best Peaches and the companies’ owner, 66 forged checks were found in addition to phone and electronic transfers, Bruchey said.
Johnston then used the funds for shopping, dining, vehicle expenses, cash withdrawals and fuel, as well as for services at spas and nail salons and at bars.
The Lakeland and Bartow police departments have similar investigations underway regarding Johnston, Bruchey said.
Johnston was arrested on felony charges of grand theft, aggravated white collar crime of 20 or more persons, criminal use of personal identification of 30 or more persons and obtaining property by fraud. She was released on bail Thursday, according to the PCSO.