No tickets, no hotel room—no refund.
Last year, 98 different people booked travel to New Orleans for the Essence Music Festival under the impression that the only thing left for them to do was show up and have fun. They’d set up their excursion through a travel agency that had taken care of putting together everything they’d need for the weekend. Or so they’d been lead to believe.
The packages they’d been sold were advertised as including Essence Fest tickets, VIP and party passes, and hotel rooms—all they had to do was book the flights and show up. But once they arrived they discovered no accommodations, no tickets, and certainly, no VIP passes. Also a no-show? Their refunds.
Now Nakesia Washington, who orchestrated the scheme via her agency OBL Travel, has received a 15-year sentence (with the final 6 being suspended and three to be served on active probation) after she admitted to selling phony vacation packages. All in all, 98 people were scammed out of a total of $80,000.
Judge Ellen Shrier also ordered her to pay restitution (the matter will be addressed at a hearing on July 11), so her victims will eventually get back the money they paid for the fake packages. But of course, the ideal situation is to simply have the travel experience you paid for in the first place. So how can you make you protect yourself from scammers?
Protect Yourself From Travel Agent Scams
There is the simple option of booking everything yourself. The downside is that you might not be able to bundle things or gain access to special perks and insider knowledge the way a travel agent can, but you can at least know all the money you’re spending is going where it needs to go.
If you’re considering a travel agency you’ve never used before, make sure you vet them ahead of time. Ask for client references, check out online reviews, and consider recommendations you get from friends and family. Unfortunately, even if you do your due diligence it’s not always a guarantee. According to Fox 8, Washington was listed as being in good standing with the Better Business Bureau before news of the scam came to light. That said, it’s still worth your time (and money) to take some time researching any travel agents and/or agencies you’re considering booking through.
When you’re booking through a travel agent use a credit card, so if you do find yourself on the receiving end of a scam you can dispute it with your credit card and have a decent chance at having your money refunded.
If you book through an agent make sure to follow up on your reservations once everything’s said and done. Of course one of the benefits of using a travel agent is that they take care of everything for you. So while this precaution does require the unfortunate task of “doing something” it’s still a quick and easy way to make sure you don’t end up without a place to stay when you arrive. (And if your trip is centered on a popular event like Essence Fest you’ll find your options for last minute accommodations will likely be of the limited variety.)