As season opens, beware of hunting lease scams.

spectr17

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Sept. 26, 2001, 6:57PM

As season opens, beware of hunting lease scams.

By SHANNON TOMPKINS, Houston Chronicle

Archery-only deer season opens Saturday in most Texas counties, triggering a considerable migration of bow-toting hunters to tracts of land across the state.

It's a fair bet at least a few of those 70,000-100,000 archers will get a horrible surprise when they reach their destination, be it a new annual lease or some package hunt they set months ago.

Either the lease -- the place the hunter paid as much as $1,000 or more to rent -- or the package hunt -- the multi-day, guided hunt for which the hunter coughed up a similar amount of hard-earned cash -- will not exist.

The land the hunter thought he had leased will belong to someone other than the person he paid for hunting privileges.

The operator of the package hunt won't show at the appointed place and time.

Each year, hunters across Texas fall prey to swindles and scams associated with hunting leases and package hunts.

Just how often such scams are pulled on Texans and how much money is involved are hard to gauge. The state's Office of the Attorney General maintains no records on such criminal acts because the AG's office seldom, if ever, gets involved in such cases.

The majority of investigations into, and prosecutions of, hunting lease swindles are pursued by local district attorneys in state courts in the counties in which the frauds are perpetrated. Checking records in the state's 254 counties for lease scams is too much of a task to coordinate.

But anecdotal evidence over the past few years points to such scams being frequent, if not increasing across the state.

The reason for hunters being targeted by scam artists is simple. There's a lot of money to be made doing so.

Hunting leases and package deer hunts in Texas are increasingly expensive and of limited quantity. In some areas of the state, landowners are leasing annual hunting rights for tens of thousands of dollars.

In much of Texas, hunting leases are being offered for $5-$15 per acre. But that fee can be much higher -- a check of the Chronicle's hunting lease classified ads showed South Texas tracts being leased for as much as $41 per acre and coastal oak mott country going for as much as $25 an acre.

Deer hunters, particularly in high-profile deer country such as South Texas, are looking at annual lease fees of as much as $4,500, with the average falling in the $1,000-$2,000 range.

Package deer hunts -- where the hunter is provided food, lodging, hunting area, a guide and other amenities for a hunt lasting 2-5 days -- run from about $750 on the low end to as much as $10,000 or more on the high end.

With that much money at stake and about a half-million deer hunters -- potential suckers -- in the state, it's no wonder lease and hunt scams are perpetrated.

A couple of recent incidents involving such scams, or allegations of fraud, serve to show the extent and cost of the problem.

Earlier this month, a Dallas-area man was sentenced in state court to two years in prison, five years of probation and a fine of almost $8,200 for theft involving fraudulent deer leases.

The man, who in August pleaded guilty to charges associated with the case, had run advertisements in the classified ads section of the Fort Worth newspaper offering hunting leases in the San Angelo area, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department officials said.

The man, who had met and shown property in Irion and Tom Green counties to hunters who responded to the ads, collected about $8,500 from about a dozen people.

But the land he was "leasing" was not his, nor did he have authority to lease it.

The man talked a good game, even relating to victims how well he knew the local game warden and producing keys to locked gates.

TPWD game warden Doug Seamons, involved in investigating the case, said some of the bilked hunters went so far as to begin building blinds and otherwise setting up hunting camps on the property.

The scheme came to light when legal landowners discovered the unsuspecting hunters.

Similar cases irregularly surface in the media and aren't confined to fraud involving private lands. In one recent case, hunters were swindled by a man "leasing" hunting tracts on what turned out to be national forest land in eastern Texas.

While the non-existent lease appears to be the most common scam perpetrated on Texas hunters, some have fallen prey to frauds involving package hunts.

A case alleging such a scheme is scheduled to be heard in federal court in Beaumont early next month.

The case involves a husband and wife from Port Neches who federal authorities have charged with nine criminal counts, including four counts of mail fraud, two counts of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, two counts of money laundering and one count of criminal forfeiture.

In July, the federal grand jury indictment including those charges alleged the couple had defrauded at least 48 people, most of them from the Houston area, of more than $80,000 -- an average of more than $1,500 per person.

The scheme involved newspaper advertisements for package deer hunts in Edwards County through an outfitter called Classic Outdoors. The ads ran from December 1999 through December 2000.

Federal officials said hunters who signed up for the package hunts were required to pay a 50 percent deposit, then the remaining 50 percent of the fee no more than two weeks before the hunt.

Hunters were supposed to receive information about the hunt -- directions to the hunting site, etc. -- upon payment of the entire fee.

Many received no information after they had paid their fees. Others got a map to an Edwards County tract the couple did not own, nor had authorization to use, federal officials said.

If convicted, the pair face maximum punishments of more than 40 years in prison and more than a million dollars in fines.

The hunters are left holding the bag.

Those examples show just how trusting Texas hunters can be. And most of the time, such trust is warranted; the overwhelming majority of deer lease brokers and package hunt outfitters are legitimate.

But deer leases and package hunts costing so much money, it's inevitable that money will attract nefarious characters.

Hunters can protect themselves by subverting their natural inclination to trust someone.

Ask for references, and contact them.

Get a contract.

Talk to adjacent landowners.

Locate a game warden in the county and ask if he or she is familiar with the lease or hunting operation and what they know about it.

Trust no one.

Sad to say, there are people out there who are more than willing to not only empty a hunter's wallet, but use hunters' natural optimism against them.

Bet on some of those hunters heading out for this weekend's opening of the archery deer season to discover that ugly truth.


Shannon Tompkins covers the outdoors for the Chronicle. His column appears Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays.
 

huntducks

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Jess

My brother who lives in OK. sent me a artical about a guy who had 20 guys come in from all over US they paid him $1200-$1500 per person, he had set up motel rooms for them, which was supposed to be included in price, he took them out to a ranch and they drove around it in evening seeing many bucks, he collected balance of  there money, and said meet me at resturant at 3am they never saw him again, and the ranch was owned buy someone else, they also got stuck for motel bill and food which was to be included.

I started hunting Del Rio area of Texas back in 1973 it was 10-25 cents per ac. back then, we hunted this ranch 10,000 ac. for $20 per day each up until he sold it in 1982, Deer, turkeys, Javelina, Exotics, & quail.

There is no way I would pay the kind of money they charge in Texas now.

There are to many nice bucks in MO.& KS.

(Edited by huntducks at 8:27 pm on Oct. 2, 2001)
 

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