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An epic fitness festival was planned in Santa Rosa this weekend. Vendors think they were scammed

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When Lucibel Nuñez, a longtime Sonoma County fitness instructor and coach, started seeing posts online for NorCal FitFest, she got a bad feeling. It wasn’t clear who was organizing the event, and the content was vague. She was reminded of the 2022 Taco Fest that failed spectacularly to live up to promises.

It also made her think back to a surprising interaction she’d had while organizing a craft fair in December 2023 when a potential vendor asked her point blank if the event was fake and asked for verification. “I was mind blown,” Nuñez said. “Fake events? What does that even mean?”

That’s how she learned there is a trend of scams targeting vendors who sign up and pay for booths for events that never materialize.

The Better Business Bureau has received a number of reports about fake tickets to legitimate events or tickets to events that don’t materialize.

“Every scam is different, but they have a targeted demographic,” said Alma Galvan, spokesperson for the organization’s Bay Area and California North Coast division. Fitness and food are popular.

It’s unclear how many vendors bought spots at NorCal FitFest. Nuñez and others who spoke to The Press Democrat said they knew several people personally who had. Multiple people attested to buying booths in comments on Instagram posts as well.

Cat Senet of Still Life Acupuncture, signed up for a booth in November. It was going to be their first local event, and she even had custom lip balms made. “We were excited to expose the fitness world and community around here to acupuncture,” she said. “It seemed well organized,” Seffens said. The organizers sent a payment link through Instagram and said they were excited to get the ball rolling. “Then they went completely dark.”

“They could walk away with a big chunk of our community’s change,” Darling said.

Senet was fortunately able to successfully dispute the charge for the booth with her credit card company. She recently filed a report with the Santa Rosa Police Department. A police spokesperson confirmed to The Press Democrat that an investigation is ongoing.

A local hook

Tristan St. Germain, a trauma-informed somatic coach and fitness professional, started communicating with Micheline and “his team” on social media in January after an account for the event started following her and interacting with her posts. She was excited to work on something that could be meaningful and fun for her community. She signed up and paid for a booth right away and started planning with Micheline and connected him with others.

When her teenage son fell suddenly and seriously ill with what turned out to be Multiple Sclerosis, Micheline reached out and offered to donate a portion of proceeds to her son’s GoFundMe for medical and support costs. The fundraiser is currently advertised on the event website and ticketing page.

But, what she initially saw as “incredibly generous” now feels manipulative.

Because she is known in local fitness and dance circles, she suspects that by associating the event with her — “the most horrible thing that’s going on in my life” — “that it would validate this organization,” she said, “which is disgusting.” St. Germain has sent multiple messages asking for the information about her to be taken down, to no avail.

Indeed, some of the others who worked the event like Darling and Teitgen were motivated to participate because of the potential benefit to St. Germain’s family. Now they worry their association has similarly legitimized the mystery festival and drawn in others who recognize and trust them.

Ultimately, “my reputation as a producer is being messed with. That sucks. Same for Colleen. But, for them to take advantage of Tristan and her family to gain whatever money they’re going to gain from booth sales and ticket sales. That’s just wrong.”

Galvan of the Better Business Bureau said the level of investment by the organizer isn’t something she’s heard of in other event scams. Without knowing the ins and outs of the situation, she said it’s possible the organizer had good intentions and there was an emergency, or there just weren’t enough ticket sales or infrastructure set up, which happened with the infamous Fyre Festival. She said it’s also possible that a savvy scammer would decide that the proceeds from a fake event would be worth the effort of appearing to stage a legitimate festival.

“All in all, you’d expect them to communicate,” Galvan said.

“That’s one of the things that’s most disappointing about this. We believed in this person, this stranger that reached out to us,” Darling said. “Here’s the thing. Even if this isn’t a scam, and he is suffering, and he’s somewhere healing, at least something needs to be done about this, so everybody has put in money and are getting taken advantage of can be reimbursed or just communicated with.”

“In Your Corner” is a column that puts watchdog reporting to work for the community. If you have a concern, a tip, or a hunch, you can reach “In Your Corner” Columnist Marisa Endicott at 707-521-5470 or marisa.endicott@pressdemocrat.com. On X (formerly Twitter) @InYourCornerTPD and Facebook @InYourCornerTPD.

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