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Houstonian pleads guilty in eBay hot tub scam

A Houston man who pretended to sell hot tubs on eBay but instead took $191,000 from 46 customers and spent it on expensive cigars, trips and strip clubs pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday.

Steve Todd Lanni, 48, pleaded guilty to wire fraud for a scheme he ran through his business, Factory Direct Spas on Old Katy Road. He took money from customers all around the U.S, and from overseas, according to U.S. Attorney Tim Johnson’s office.

Lanni was selling hot tubs on the Internet at 50 percent to 70 percent below retail from 2004 through 2006, collecting the money upfront and simply not delivering them. Prosecutors said he used a number of excuses, including that hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused him some business disruption.

“Instead, Lanni used the money wired by his customers to pay for a lavish lifestyle, including trips to Hawaii, London, Miami, Las Vegas and Canada, for visits to strip clubs and for expensive cigars, expensive clothing, massages and dining at expensive Houston restaurants, spending up to $300 per day for dinner,” a written statement from Johnson’s office stated.

Customers began to complain to the Houston Police Department and, working with the FBI Cybercrimes Task Force, they made a case that included complaints from Florida to Tennessee to Massachusetts.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Vernon Lewis is prosecuting the case before U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison, who will sentence Lanni. Lanni has promised to pay back those he cheated. He faces a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.