Friday, December 12, 2008
FILIPINO TRAVEL AGENCY UNDER INVESTIGATION FOR FRAUD
Customers Advised To Check With Airlines To Verify If Tickets Bought Are Valid
By Yong B. Chavez
Long Beach, Calif.-- What if you came to the airport and found out that your tickets are not valid? A Filipino-owned travel agency in Long Beach is the focus of a fraud investigation by the police. Over 30 customers have filed complaints against The Travel Place because they allegedly bought airline tickets for the Philippines that turned out to be bogus.
Mayvel Ocampo was so excited about her plans to spend Christmas in the Philippines, so as early as may, she purchased her Cathay Pacific tickets from The Travel Place in Long Beach.
"I saw their ad in a Filipino newspaper…I called and talked to Alex. He asked me to send them the check and then he sent me the supposed e-tickets through mail. They cashed my check around May," said Ocampo.
Her sister also bought a ticket from the same travel agent named Alex Rebote. All in all, they paid over $5,000 to the travel agency for their tickets.
In October, Ocampo called Cathay Pacific to reserve their seats. She got the surprise of her life when they told her that her booking was cancelled by The Travel Place.
"I called and talked to Alex and he said, 'Really? It was cancelled?' He told me there was just a confusion. He said, 'Everything's OK, I'll send you the ticket," Ocampo said.
The tickets never came. Ocampo called several times a week and got the same reassurance each time. She called Cathay Pacific, and true enough, they have another booking for her - albeit in business class.
It turned out that that was all it was: A booking.
In late November, on another follow-up call, the phone was answered by a building employee who said that The Travel Place office was now deserted; the whereabouts of its owners and employees, unknown.
The Long Beach Police Department is currently investigating over thirty complaints against the company which is owned by Jeanette Lim and has been in operation since 2002, according to the Better Business Bureau.
Reports of fraud against them continue to pour in. Ocampo has heard of a Filipino family who bought tickets from the same place who went to the airport only to be told that what they had were not e-tickets but only itineraries. Another customer recently posted a complaint with the Better Business Bureau - they were stranded in Manila because their return tickets weren't valid.
The Travel Place did not respond to an e-mail request for comment.
With e-tickets replacing paper tickets, customers who get itineraries instead of paper tickets can be easy marks for scammers.
To avoid becoming a victim, travelers are encouraged by the police to seek precautions.
When making travel arrangements, experts give the following tips: Always ask detailed questions and get everything in writing. Verify with the airlines if they have issued the tickets that you paid for, and consider paying with a credit card that allows consumer to dispute charges when problems occur.
It's an expensive lesson for Ocampo, who had to come up with another four thousand dollars so that her family trip can go on. She also had to adjust her vacation leave with her work because there were no more airline seats available on her original schedule.
"That's what hurts more because kapwa Pilipino so you trust more kasi pareho kayo ng pinanggalingan but I guess anywhere, merong mangloloko," she said.
Consumers who lost money from travel sellers can either file a lawsuit or seek compensation with the Travel Consumer Restitution Corporation.
California's Secretary of State also has a "Victims of Corporate Fraud Compensation Fund."
Ocampo's sister, Marvet Espejo, could not come up with the payment for another ticket so she is forced to cancel her plan to find a venue for her upcoming wedding in the Philippines.
"That's why I'm so pissed, everything…ang sakit-sakit dahil hindi ko makikita ang family ko for another year," Espejo said. She adds that she literally has nightmares due to this experience.
The sisters suspect that many homecoming Filipino Americans are still unaware that the tickets they bought might not be valid.
They feel compelled to search the Internet for any information on Lim and Rebote and to spread the word about what happened to them so other Filipinos can be forewarned.
"We feel so helpless...We heard a rumor that the owners of the travel agency have gone to the Philippines," Espejo said.
"That may very well be the case, but I can't say for sure," said Jackie Bezart, public information officer of the Long Beach Police Department. "The investigation is ongoing."
Complainants are not all from Los Angeles area only because many transactions were done over the phone.
To report a complaint, contact Detective Greg McMullen at the Long Beach Police Department at (562) 570-7330.
A shorter version of this story appeared on my Balitang America report this week. Photo info: Mayvel Ocampo, Magnus Ocampo and Marvet Espejo, outside the former office of The Travel Place, 4000 Long Beach Blvd., Long Beach, CA.