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Suspected scam targets foreign ski workers

Park City Police Department investigators are probing what they describe as a housing swindle that targeted two groups of foreign Park City Mountain Resort workers who, according to the police, were unknowingly offered the same place to rent.

One of the groups of foreigners — about 13 people from Uruguay — has lost $5,000 on the deal, the Police Department said. The police said the other group of workers, who are from Argentina, did not send money.

Steve Hirzel, a police officer who is investigating, said PCMR officials reported the case to the police in November. According to Hirzel, the 13 Uruguayans paid the $5,000 as a deposit on the place through a wire transfer to an American bank account. They were to rent the place from December until April.

However, the Uruguayans came in contact with the group from Argentina, who were considering renting the same place. The owners of the housing were still advertising the place, Hirzel said.

Hirzel understands the Uruguayans do not have the housing they put the $5,000 deposit down for. He is unsure when they are scheduled to arrive in the U.S. for work.

"This has scam written all over it," Hirzel said.

He said the Police Department traced the $5,000 wire transfer to a U.S. bank. It is not in Utah, but Hirzel declined to make public where the bank is located. The police obtained an investigative subpoena for the banking records, and it must be answered by late December, he said. Investigators are also reviewing e-mails between the Uruguayans and the supposed renter.

The case comes as Park City’s three mountain resorts open for the season. The three have for years attracted foreign workers for seasonal employment, with South Americans accounting for a significant bloc of the ski-season work force at the resorts.

The seasons are reversed between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, and die-hard skiers and snowboarders from skiing regions in the Southern Hemisphere sometimes spend their homeland’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere’s winter.

But the rental market during the ski season in the Park City area is cutthroat, with many landlords charging some of the highest rents in Utah. There have long been stories of overcrowded houses and apartments loaded with seasonal workers. Area employers rarely provide seasonal workers with housing.

Neither the police nor PCMR identified the South Americans.

Scott Loomis, the executive director of Mountainlands Community Housing Trust, a not-for-profit that assists with seasonal housing, said the rental market this winter does not seem as tight as it has been in recent years. He had not heard of the case involving the Uruguayans, but he said disputes with similar claims are uncommon locally. He said he recalls one previous instance two or three years ago. He did not provide details of the previous case.

PCMR officials were alerted of the most current case. The resort’s human-resources manager said the two groups of South Americans contacted each other about the housing through a Facebook page set up for the resort.

Chris Lampe, who is the human-resources manager at PCMR, said the episode is "very frustrating." He said he understands the South Americans found the housing advertised on the craigslist Internet site.

He said PCMR will assist the South Americans find housing if they are left without a place to live. Neither group has arrived for the season, he understands. PCMR staggers starting dates during the ski season depending on a person’s job.

According to Lampe, PCMR employs a ski-season work force numbering approximately 1,200. Most of the workers live in Park City, surrounding Summit County or the Salt Lake Valley. The resort does not keep its own work force housing. Lampe said PCMR is renting five condominiums this winter in Park City for worker use. The condominiums can house 17 people.

Lampe said PCMR provides workers with housing leads and information about neighborhoods. The resort does not explicitly warn workers about the potential for unscrupulous housing advertisements, he said.

"To have scams like this going on only makes the whole town (look) bad," Lampe said.


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