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Paradise Lost: How to prevent scams from raining on your vacation plans

Last Updated Jan 24, 2020 at 12:17 pm MST

A plane is silhouetted as it takes off from Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C., on May 13, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

With March Break fast approaching, thousands of Canadians will be scouring the internet for the best deals on flights and vacation packages to tropical locations.

But some sun-seekers will inevitably end up getting burned by something other than the sun.

Oshawa school teacher Luciano Tersigni contacted CityNews to explain how he and his wife were scammed out of thousands of dollars when they tried to purchase a vacation package through a person who was posing as travel agent online.

Tersigni’s story isn’t the typical case of blindly handing over credit card information without any due diligence. But it does raise red flags when it comes to arranging and paying for flights and hotels through a third party.

Tersigni says his ill-fated Christmas vacation plans began when an acquaintance referred him to a travel agent from Quebec who was advertising his services on Facebook Marketplace. Tersigni contacted the person, who claimed to work for Air Transat.

When he searched the person’s name online some of his initial apprehensions were alleviated — the name indeed came up as an Air Transat employee.

But his suspicions resurfaced when the person said he could secure the couple a cheaper price for an all-inclusive trip to Punta Cana if Tersigni e-transferred him the funds.

Tersigni wisely refused, but unfortunately the story doesn’t end there.

The “agent” then said he would pay for and book the trip on their behalf, after which Tersigni could send the money.

It sounded agreeable, and on Dec. 21, Tersigni received confirmation that the booking was complete. He was even provided a booking number.

When he downloaded the Air Transat app and punched in the booking number, he found his and his wife’s name along with all the accompanying flight information.

With everything looking legitimate, he sent the payment.

They even paid extra through the app to select their seats and signed on for flight notifications, preparing to spend the holidays lounging by the pool.

But the only thing he would be swimming in, was debt.

The flight was scheduled for Dec. 27, but when he tried to check in online on the 26th, he was unable to.

Perplexed, the couple reached out to Air Transat, eventually speaking to a representative who broke the bad news; the booking was cancelled because the credit card purchase was deemed fraudulent.

He further learned that the cancellation notification was sent to the person who booked the flight, leaving them in the dark until they attempted to check in.

The so-called agent who booked the flight vanished, and Tersigni and his wife were told they were on the hook for the cost of the package. After some wrangling, they were able to receive a refund from Air Transat for the extra costs associated with picking their seats through the app.

Buyer beware

Air Transat told CityNews a flight that is reserved through an online payment can later be cancelled if it fails the verification process.

“A payment is required so that a reservation can be made and thus obtain a confirmation number,” company spokesperson Marie-Christine Pouliot told CityNews in an email. “Although there is a payment, thus generating a booking confirmation, the payment can be subject to verification in order to guarantee its validity.”

“Their seat selection was done while the reservation was still active, on the 22nd of December 2019, at 6:05 p.m. However, the reservation was cancelled on the 23rd of December 2019, at 5:13 p.m.”

Tersigni believes Air Transat should accept some of the responsibility, alleging a “loop hole” in its booking system allowed the scam to take place.

Air Transat denies culpability, saying it’s ultimately up to travelers to assure they are booking their flights through legitimate sources.

“When these situations arise, we follow a well-established protocol, which includes attempting to alert affected customers,” Pouliot said.

“Unfortunately, this can be difficult since the fraudster who makes the reservation on our website does not provide the true phone number and email of the passengers. When we can reach the “victims,” we explain the situation while recommending making an official complaint to the authorities.”

Pouliot added that the booking of flights through the company’s website, “should preferably be done by the passenger directly.”

“When booking with a travel agent, it is preferable that the transaction take place at the place of business of the travel agency,” she advised. “Extra care should be taken when payment is requested by cash, virtual money or e-transfer. Note that it is important to perform a series of checks, including but not limited to, verifying if a travel agent holds a valid travel permit and validating with the travel agency that said travel agent has the authority to make transactions on its behalf.”


The Travel Industry Council of Ontario (TICO) is the regulatory body that oversees the approximately 2,400 travel agencies and tour operators in Ontario, including websites.

Dorian Werda, vice-president of operations for TICO, answered the following questions about Tersigni’s situation, and about how consumers can safeguard themselves when booking vacations online and through third party entities.

How can consumers safeguard themselves when booking travel arrangements online or through a third party?

When searching for the best online deal for travel, it pays to be cautious. Unfortunately, if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. To avoid a scam, one of the simplest ways to protect yourself online is by always booking with a TICO-registered travel agency or website.

All Ontario online travel retailers are required by law to display their TICO registration number, address and phone number on their websites.

To double check if a travel agency or website is registered with TICO, people can search TICO’s online directory. Purchasing with a TICO-registered agency or website provides consumer protection and peace of mind in knowing that you have purchased from a legitimate travel seller.

TICO also has a complaints resolution process to assist consumers with complaints against Ontario travel agencies, websites and tour operators.

In Canada, there are two other provinces that have travel regulators, Quebec and British Columbia. You mentioned that the consumers thought the ‘agent’ they were dealing with was based in Quebec, so they may also want to get in touch with Office de la protection du consommateur.

Any company that sells travel and operates from Ontario (has an office/bricks-and-mortar location) must be registered with TICO and would have a listing on TICO’s online directory.

In this case it appears that someone was posing as a legitimate travel agent. How can a person verify if an agent is legit?

While travel agencies, websites and tour operators in Ontario are registered and can be verified through the online directory, individual travel agents are not regulated.

Any advertisements for travel by an Ontario travel agent/agency must include information such as the name of the agency, the phone number, and their TICO registration number.

The consumer can then go on our website and verify if the agency exists and is TICO-registered. The consumer can then call the agency and speak to the travel agent at their place of employment.

Additionally, when purchasing any travel services through a TICO-registered travel agency or website, the money will always be held in trust by the company and used only to pay the suppliers for that person’s travel arrangements. Any form of payment should be directed to the travel agency or website and never to an individual travel agent.

Should online market places like Facebook, Craigslist, Kijiji ever be used to make travel arrangements?

While legitimate travel agencies and websites may advertise their services on social media and classified websites, consumers should do their due diligence before completing any bookings:

  • Verify that the travel agency/website is TICO-registered through our online directory
  • Do an online search of the agency/website to see if any negative reviews come up
  • Contact the travel agent at the phone number listed for the agency on TICO’s directory
  • Never e-transfer funds to an individual — the payment should always go through the travel agency or website itself

 

When a flight or vacation package is booked through a third party, does the airline send updates to the third party? How can a passenger keep abreast to changes if the airline is communicating with the third-party booker, rather than the passenger?

It depends on how the booking was made and by whom.

When a booking is made with a registered Ontario travel agency online, the customer’s information is collected, and sometimes the customer who is booking and making the payment, is not the passenger travelling.

If the booking is not made online, the travel agent may be the contact, who in turn will communicate with their customer and/or include the passenger contact information on the booking.

In this case, it appears that the individual posing as a travel agent intentionally did not either include the passengers’ contact information nor did they intend for the passengers to be notified about the status of their booking.

If someone buys travel from a TICO-registered travel agency/website OR from someone holding themselves out to sell travel without TICO registration, TICO may be able to assist them and/or take possible enforcement action.

Is there any recourse here for the victim? Does the airline have any obligation for repayment or credit?

If a credit card has been stolen or card information obtained for the purpose of making a fraudulent transaction, it is very feasible for the credit card booking transaction to be confirmed until the credit card has been reported as lost or stolen, or the cardholder receives their credit card statement and reports an unauthorized charge.

If someone has already purchased fraudulent tickets, their best recourse is to contact their local police and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre. If the fraudster is located in Ontario, the consumers may file a complaint with TICO so we can investigate the matter further. TICO has the authority to lay charges, and if convicted in court, penalties can include fines of up to $50,000 for individuals, $250,000 for corporations and jail time of up to two years.

Bottom line — to protect your hard-earned travel dollars, be sure not to forfeit the consumer protection available to you and always ensure you book your travel services with a TICO-registered travel agency or website.