Seventeen people have been charged in an alleged scheme to defraud out-of-town visitors by using so-called "B-Girls" to lure them to shady South Beach private clubs where they are charged exorbitant prices for liquor, champagne and other alcoholic beverages, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.
The "B-Girls" _ short for "Bar Girls" _ troll legitimate Miami Beach nightspots for businessmen and tourists who appear wealthy based on such accessories as expensive watches and nice shoes, according to an FBI affidavit. The women, most of them brought into the scheme from Eastern Europe and Russia, then invite the men to private clubs and begin pouring the booze, racking up huge charges on the victims' credit cards.
Sometimes the men are so drunk they don't realize what is happening and can't remember a thing the next morning, the FBI affidavit says.
"Some victims are so intoxicated by the drinks forced upon them by the B-Girls that they cannot stand and are not competent enough to sign credit card receipts," FBI agent Alexander V. Tiguy said in the affidavit. "Those victims are propped up by the B-Girls long enough to obtain signatures."
The clubs aren't open to the public and exist only for the fraud scheme, according to the FBI. Yet they have the requisite exotic-sounding South Beach names: Caviar Bar, Nowhere Bar, Steel Toast, Tangia Club to name a few.
Prosecutors say at least 88 victims have been identified with total losses in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Sometimes if they refused to pay, the scam operators would call local police under a Florida law that requires bar and restaurant patrons to pay a disputed bill first and take it up later with the credit card company.
The operators also sometimes took pictures of the victims with bottles of alcohol to use as proof of the purchase, which sometimes ran $6,000 a pop or more, and one victim lost $43,000. The FBI affidavit says the "B-Girls" kept 20 percent of the business they brought in, with the owners getting 10 percent.
All 17 suspects, a mix of club operators and "B-Girls" mostly from Latvia and Estonia, face charges of wire fraud conspiracy, which carries a 20-year maximum prison sentence. The women and some of the operators made initial court appearances Wednesday, despite a delay caused by an unavailable Russian translator.
Court-appointed attorneys for the suspects, who made initial appearances before a judge shackled and wearing bland prison jumpsuits, declined comment. Some were being held without bail and others were trying to come up with bail money. One top manager of the alleged scheme was still at large and believed out of the country, prosecutors said.
U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said such scams can damage the reputation of South Florida's vital tourist industry.
"This scheme preyed on our tourists and gave our tourism industry a black eye," Ferrer said. "We are pleased to have put this ring out of operation."