A traveler takes smart precautions before booking--and her $400 deposit disappears anyway.
Therese Patterson, of San Diego, is no travel novice. She's been to every continent except Antarctica and Africa, and last spring she started planning a trip to check the latter off her wish list. After spotting an offer in Budget Travel from 2Afrika, she contacted the company about its 13-day safari in Tanzania and Kenya. "I was really looking forward to seeing the animals and connecting with the people," Therese said. Unfortunately, the rep at 2Afrika said the dates she requested were sold out.
The next day, Therese received an e-mail from Brett Lorenzo, general manager of Empire State Travel, with an offer identical to 2Afrika's--same layover in London, hotels, meals. It seemed odd to receive an unsolicited e-mail, but Therese had requested information from several operators, and thought that perhaps Empire had gotten hold of 2Afrika's (or another company's) database. After exchanging several e-mails and speaking over the phone with Brett once, Therese reserved the Empire trip for herself and three friends.
Before sending a $400 deposit for the group, Therese posted questions about the company on online forums, but got no response. The New York Department of State website, however, listed Empire as registered and legit. The day Brett confirmed receiving Therese's check, Therese called Kenya Airways to verify her seats. "If they had no record of our names, I still had time to cancel my check," she said. "Well, we had reservations, so I assumed everything was on the up-and-up."
But afterward Brett failed to return her e-mails. Full payment for the trip was due in mid-June, and Therese grew anxious. She called 2Afrika asking if the company knew anything about Empire State Travel. Kenneth Hieber, president and CEO of 2Afrika, dropped a bomb: Brett Lorenzo was someone who Ken knew as Noel Mendoza, a 2Afrika employee who had been siphoning off clients for a separate operation--none other than Empire State Travel.
Ken had learned about the scheme in mid-April, around the same time Therese had sent her check to Empire--also around the same time that Brett/Noel disappeared. Ken knew that Noel was a big Green Bay Packers fan, and he eventually deduced that his former staffer had adopted as his alias the first and middle names of quarterback Brett Lorenzo Favre. He also discovered that Noel's green card was fake, so Noel's real name was likely neither Noel nor Brett.
Ken speculates that he lost as many as 50 customers to Empire State Travel. At press time, a handful of Empire clients were in limbo because they'd paid in full for flights on Kenya Airways but never received the tickets. As is customary, the airline printed the tickets and mailed them to the booking agency, unaware that Empire's owner and sole employee had fled. 2Afrika has been trying to clean up the mess, including rebooking people who got burned. Happy that she only lost $400, Therese Patterson started from scratch with 2Afrika and is bound for Kenya and Tanzania this September.
What, if anything, could Therese and the others have done to protect themselves? This is one of the strangest scams we've heard of, and Therese did a fine investigative job. One additional step she might have taken is inquiring with the Better Business Bureau. We did, and there was no record of Empire State Travel. That only meant that the BBB hadn't received inquiries or complaints about Empire (common for new companies), not that the operation was or wasn't crooked. We also would have asked Empire if it belonged to any established professional organizations, such as the United States Tour Operators Association. Every USTOA member posts a $1 million bond to refund customers should it cancel tours, enter bankruptcy, or fold entirely. Empire State Travel wasn't a member of any such organization; then again, neither are 2Afrika and many other reputable tour operators.
Unlike 2Afrika, however, Empire State Travel has never been recommended by a respected travel authority, at least as far as we know. When in doubt, demand newspaper or magazine articles and customer referrals to verify that a company is what it says it is. (Brett had contacted Budget Travel in early 2005, requesting that we include his package in 40 Best; we declined after Brett didn't reply to our questions about his company.)
The one way to protect yourself is to pay with a credit card, because the issuing bank will reimburse you in case of fraud. Some tour operators, including 2Afrika, offer a discount for cash or check payments--a backdoor way to offset the charges they incur with credit cards. But if you're at all worried about a tour operator, the additional 3 percent you might pay for using a credit card is worth it.
How to Tell When Something's Fishy