The Grand Palladium resort in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, was a swank respite in March for Leigh Anne Belcher and her daughter until they got a call to stop by the front desk about a billing question.
Their travel agency, swamped with coronavirus cancellations, had abruptly closed its doors and disconnected its phone lines – and refused to pay the hotel for the room even though Belcher had paid the agency in full for the trip.
On the spot, Belcher had to come up with thousands of dollars to pay the upscale hotel, which threatened to call authorities and advised the front-gate attendants to make sure no one escaped without paying. When she and her daughter tried to head home to Lexington, Kentucky, they had to shell out more money; their flight had been canceled, and the airline wouldn’t allow them to change it since it, too, was booked by Florida’s BookIt.com.
The coronavirus has exposed a secret underbelly of the travel business. Many travel agencies operate Ponzi-style schemes in which one traveler's deposit pays for a previous traveler's tickets and accommodations, and so on.
Everything ran smoothly as long as bookings continued to roll in.
The pandemic blurred the muddy line between business ethics and fraud and has led to not just fried nerves but official complaints and legal action.
Through public records requests, USA TODAY obtained consumer complaints related to COVID-19 filed with attorneys generals and other agencies in 20 states. Those documents include more than 5,300 travelers, from New Jersey to Texas and Washington state, who struggled to secure refunds for trips interrupted by the coronavirus – among the most common complaints lodged.
More than 24,000 more have complained to the Federal Trade Commission about travel-related scams, reporting more than $43.5 million in losses – far above any other category of coronavirus-related fraud complaints on file with the FTC.
Some complaints accuse agencies of exaggerating their own costs, not actively seeking refunds from providers such as airlines and hotels – or even receiving refunds that they did not pass on. BookIt and two educational tour companies – NAWAS and EF Tours – were among the most frequent targets of consumer ire.
“How could it happen that I paid for a vacation and the travel agent just decided not to pay the hotel? How was this my problem?” Belcher said. “I think I went through all the stages of grief in about an hour. It wasn’t until we were wheels-up in Santo Domingo that I felt like I could take a breath. And then, the anger set in.”
Belcher channeled some of that anger into managing a Facebook group, Scammed by BookIt, for people seeking refunds from the company, which has grown to nearly 3,000 members. While the company’s website and phone lines are still dead, the group shares tips on how to get credit card companies to cover the charges.
Representatives from BookIt did not respond to requests for comment. In a written statement provided to a Florida television station in July, the company's interim chief financial officer, Ryan Tennyson, said the company had refunded 70% of its customers.
Deposit shell game part of modern travel
Travel agents, either online or traditional, often bundle together flights, accommodations and transportation and make money either through commissions or bulk discounts – or both.
Customer deposits are supposed to be passed on to vendors, hotels and tour operators to hold the reservations. Increasingly, travel experts say companies have lengthened the time between receiving and releasing those funds. The practice can be buried in the fine-print terms of deposit agreements. State laws offer little recourse.
Scott Keyes, who runs the website Scott’s Cheap Flights, said online travel agencies “make their money by making commissions of 20 or 30 percent for those activities and car rentals. They save money by having less customer service, which can be a problem if you’re caught in limbo like this.”
“If a catastrophic event happens like a worldwide pandemic,” Keyes said, “they’re really up a creek.”
Experts noted that the practice of stockpiling customer deposits, then holding onto them if things go wrong, is the business model for various kinds of travel companies – and most airlines.
This month, online booking site Expedia was sued by travelers whose class-action lawsuit blames the company for not more aggressively pursuing refunds. After consumer backlash, airline executives followed federal policy and began issuing cash refunds instead of only offering vouchers for travel.
Discount brokers that operate as middlemen, which lack the financial backing of major companies, play a particularly precarious role. Some, such as educational tour companies, pay upfront fees for group reservations and say they struggle to get the money back themselves.
Charlottesville, Virginia-based WorldStrides, which offered educational travel and group tours, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in July. The student travel company said it was negotiating with lenders to reduce more than $750 million in debt.
“These agencies were operating on the edge of solvency,” said John Breyault of the National Consumer League, a nonprofit advocacy group. “Suddenly when everything went to hell, everyone goes back to these middlemen, and they don’t have the money to cover refunds.”
Jeff Gayduk, publisher of Leisure Group Travel magazine, said middlemen and tour companies alike are always at the mercy of the end suppliers – the airlines, hotels and so on – when it comes to issuing refunds.
“The industry was roaring and had a 10-year run where demand exceeded supply, and people got greedy,” Gayduk said. “Now suddenly a crowbar has been stuck in the flywheel, and everyone is wrongly holding onto customer deposits.”
Gayduk said a travel industry colleague had packaged Kentucky Derby experiences before officials reversed course and barred fans from the race Sept. 5. That tour operator can’t get back the $300,000 his company spent on ticket deposits, Gayduk said, leaving him to face angry customers who want their money.
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Cruise companies have a slightly different business model, typically selling trips up to 18 months in advance, with perks such as drink packages and free Internet for those plunking down early deposits. Final payments usually are due 90 to 120 days in advance of sail dates.
That cash flow helps keep earlier cruises afloat financially. In the pandemic, maritime attorney Jim Walker, said the companies continue to sell cruises to finance refunds of other recently canceled cruises – despite scant evidence most will sail in the near-term.
“Carnival is essentially running a quasi-Ponzi scheme,” Walker said. “It is collecting money for new cruises, which will probably not take place, to be used to eventually refund fares which Carnival owes to its customers for the past several months.”
Carnival spokesman Roger Frizzell called that accusation “a ridiculous assertion that could not be further from the truth.”
In a filing with the Securities Exchange Commission, Carnival executives said about 45% of its customers opted for cruise credits instead of cash refunds. At the end of August, the company reported it held more than $2.4 billion in customer deposits.
“We have an extremely loyal customer base,” Frizzell said, “who is anxiously ready to cruise again with our brands, when ready.”
Cruise refunds elusive: Some cruise customers waited months for refunds
Scuttled faith-based trips cause grief
Once every 10 years, the villagers of Oberammergau, Germany, perform a Passion play depicting the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It’s part of a centuries-old pact with God to protect the town from the bubonic plague.
In 2020, a different pandemic forced the production to be postponed – and thousands of religious travelers from Wisconsin to Florida were out thousands of dollars. NAWAS, the tour company partnering with their churches, would not release all of their money.
Many customers were particularly upset because trusted leaders at their churches and schools had recruited them for the trips.
“They’re supposed to be a Christian organization,” said one man who has taken nearly a dozen trips with NAWAS over the years. “That’s anything but Christian to do that to these people. Most of these people have scraped together their money for years for these tours.”
More than 400 consumers complained about NAWAS to the attorney general in Connecticut, where the Christian tour operator is based. The company works through churches to recruit customers for pilgrimages to the Holy Land and Europe and to see the Oberammergau Passion play.
When COVID-19 forced the play to pause until 2022, these travelers – many elderly and on fixed incomes – wanted refunds. They were stunned when the company initially refused.
USA TODAY interviewed several of those who filed formal complaints, who agreed to speak only if they could remain anonymous because they settled with the company and signed nondisclosure agreements.
Customers told USA TODAY they had spent up to $10,000 on their canceled trips and NAWAS sought to withhold $1,150 per person or to keep their deposits as credits for travel through 2022. Some senior citizens said they were not even sure they would live that long.
NAWAS justified keeping their money through a technicality, they said, maintaining that they had violated the original terms of their contracts by canceling the trip themselves. Customers argued that canceled flights and worldwide shutdowns made it impossible to go on vacation as planned, even if they had been willing to forgo the performance.
“They said we canceled the trip,” said Mary Manning of Rockaway, New Jersey. “My argument was the whole world was shut down.”
In relatively good health at 69, Manning opted to roll all of the money over for a future trip to see the Passion play, but she said she would prefer a full refund of her $4,000 in deposits.
Jeff Ment, an attorney who represents NAWAS, said unlike cruises or airlines, the tour operator could not provide full refunds because companies further down the supply chain already had been paid. NAWAS, he said, did not have the cash on hand.
He cited government red tape in Germany and Italy that made it more difficult to recover refunds from overseas suppliers. Ment said NAWAS ended up giving customers refunds they “usually weren’t entitled to.”
All told, the company rescheduled, rebooked or partially refunded about 16,000 customers, Ment said.
“There are no winners in this; NAWAS is not a winner for losing its entire year,” he said. “NAWAS did the best it could under extremely difficult circumstances.”
Although it costs tour companies money to coordinate and reserve trips, that didn’t justify the amount of funds NAWAS wanted to withhold, Connecticut Attorney General William Tong told USA TODAY.
“People were not getting their money back, and we were very concerned they were not being treated well,” Tong said. “We are talking about a lot of seniors and people on fixed incomes, and this is a big expense for them.”
The company reached an agreement with the attorney general to refund all but $500 per person, an amount negotiated based on an analysis of consumer deposits and business costs.
There was one catch: Consumers had to contact NAWAS before Aug. 20 to obtain a refund. Some, who told USA TODAY they were unaware of the settlements, missed the deadline. After reporters questioned the state and company about the situation, they received their refunds.
Five-figure student trips only partially refunded
EF Educational Tours has partnered with school districts across the nation to organize group tours. When the virus took hold, the company attempted to deny full refunds to parents – until attorneys general got involved.
Lona Lamar and her partner had planned to head to Spain in June as chaperones for her son’s class trip. She spent more than $12,000 on the trip, booked through her son’s high school in Missouri.
At first, the company offered a voucher for future travel, Lamar said, which she thought made little sense for a school trip. The company then agreed to refund some of her deposit but wanted to keep about $1,000 per traveler – $3,000 in all in her case.
Lamar filed a complaint with the attorney general in Missouri in April. Because the tour company was based out of Cambridge, the Massachusetts attorney general negotiated a settlement in May that secured more than $1.4 million in partial refunds for nearly 4,200 consumers in the state.
EF Tours agreed to roll out those policies for all customers, including Lamar. The company kept $565 per person. That leaves Lamar’s trio still out more than $1,500 for a trip they never took.
“I thought it was very predatorial of the company, considering it was a pandemic,” she said. “From a parent’s standpoint, you put your trust in them. It’s just really disappointing.”
Company spokesman Adam Bickelman said policies evolved as the extent of the pandemic became clearer. He pointed to global staff overhead and supplier costs to explain why the company could not offer full cash refunds.
Bickelman noted that the customer disputes mostly related to EF Educational Tours. The domestic division, EF Explore America, offered different cash refund options because those programs cost less than the overseas excursions.
The majority of 2020 tour groups opted to accept vouchers for travel redeemable for another trip through Sept. 30, 2022, Bickelman said.
“The health and safety of our travelers and staff have been our top priority for more than 55 years,” he said. “Our singular focus during this time has been to provide our customers with the best and most flexible rebooking and refund options.”
By the time Carol Petrini reached out to EF Tours in late March to explore her options, trips around the world were being canceled, countries were banning visitors and cruise ships were getting stuck at sea. She had been paying for her tour to France through an installment plan, then up to $3,000 in all.
The company wanted to withhold $1,000 for the cancellation, Petrini said. After the settlement with the attorney general in Massachusetts, she got all but about $500 back. She questions the company’s justification for keeping any of her money.
The company “just kept saying over and over that they had already expended money on these trips,” Petrini said, “but there was no evidence that there were reservations for the airlines or hotels or anything.”
Investigations, lawsuits and charges pending
BookIt was attractive to blue-collar travelers who could slowly fund their dream vacations through a “pay delay” system. Their angst and anger is palpable on the Facebook group started by Leigh Anne Belcher and in official consumer complaints.
“I feel so stupid even booking with them. I don’t care about my trip getting canceled. I just want my money back,” one member of the Facebook group wrote about his monthslong battle with his bank, USAA, to refund his canceled $3,000 trip to Montego Bay, Jamaica.
“From what I understand, the BookIt business model was to not pay the resorts or airlines until the last moment of the actual trip beginning, even though I paid in full nearly four months in advance,” a Wisconsin customer complained to the state’s attorney general.
“American Airlines says I should be talking with the travel agency I booked with, not American,” Douglas Callies wrote to Wisconsin’s attorney general about his canceled trip to Cancun, Mexico. “(BookIt) never used the money for the stated purpose, but merely pocketed it to (their) personal advantage.”
Andrea Koos, a spokeswoman for American Airlines, confirmed that the company issued refunds to BookIt.com but halted them once it received a notice from a travel billing clearing house that the agency had shut down.
Florida’s attorney general says more than 800 people lodged complaints about BookIt, which is based in Panama City Beach. The U.S. Attorney's Office, Federal Bureau of Investigation and police department, which fielded hundreds of complaints from consumers and vendors, collect cases in an online portal to potentially pursue fraud charges.
“I’m not in the travel business, but I just assume when I pay for my vacation, it’s paid for when I make my purchase,” Panama City police Lt. J.R. Talamantez said. “We’re trying to wrap our head around this business concept and whether it falls into fraud. It’s a sad and unfortunate situation.”
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey filed a civil suit against BookIt in June, alleging unfair and deceptive business practices. BookIt has not responded to the complaint.
Wisconsin’s Mikayla Schmidt and her fiancé Jordan Stiefel should have been on their honeymoon in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, this month, all planned through BookIt.
They were paying for the $4,100 trip in installments, and their last payment was due in March. Their first clue came when they noticed the last payment had not been debited from their bank account.
“We had it on a pay delay schedule and … we went to check, and the website said everything was canceled,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt and her fiance joined Belcher’s Facebook group and filed complaints with state agencies. They disputed the earlier payments with their bank but are short about $900, Schmidt said.
When the couple got married, they instead honeymooned in California.
'Tip of the iceberg': Airbnb, VRBO guests fight for refunds after coronavirus cancellations
Documents provided by customers to USA TODAY show BookIt contacted partner hotels in March to say it wouldn’t make payments for guests, even as some of them arrived. It warned customers then that they’d probably end up paying twice and told them to fight it out with their credit card companies.
“The resort may be asking to collect the money for your stay directly from you at this time, despite that you have paid in full directly with us,” a letter from BookIt.com reads. “To get reimbursement, you need to work with your bank directly.”
A front page of the website instructs customers to contact credit agencies for refunds.
Belcher said she developed a guide for disputing charges directly with credit agencies, but members of the Facebook group who booked with debit cards or funds through their credit unions have had more trouble.
In a statement to WMBB-TV in Panama City Beach, Tennyson – the BookIt executive – said the company continues to operate and its 35 remaining staff members, down from 300, were working to refund customers.
Federal records show the company took a $1 million to $2 million Payroll Protection Program loan through the Small Business Administration, claiming to have saved 168 jobs.
Tennyson's statement said BookIt “hopes to resume its activities as a full service travel agency once some semblance of order returns to the international travel industry.”
Contributing: Mary Claire Molloy and Taylor Killough
Nick Penzenstadler and Josh Salman are reporters on the USA TODAY investigations team. Nick can be reached email@example.com or @npenzenstadler, or on Signal at (720) 507-5273. Josh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @joshsalman, or (941) 361-4967.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus travel refund battles expose deposit shell game