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Airline-Ticket Fraud Victims Have A Rough Landing

When she landed in Detroit, Karen Gladbach was glad to be almost home after the long, 20-hour trip from Bangkok, Thailand. But she was in for a big surprise when she tried to board her connecting flight to Washington’s National Airport.

Northwest Airlines confiscated her entire ticket, claiming it was invalid. As a result, she missed her plane, and before she could catch the next one 90 minutes later she had to pay $133.50 for a new ticket.

As Gladbach quickly discovered, she was the unsuspecting victim of a travel company that had sold her a ticket apparently forged on counterfeit ticket blanks. In search of a cheap round-trip fare between Washington and the Thailand capital, she had answered a small advertisement in the pages of the Washington Post’s Sunday travel section. Fortunately for her, she made it as far as she did before Northwest spotted the bad ticket. Otherwise, the carrier might have asked her to pay hundreds of dollars more for a return ticket from Bangkok. Or the ticket could have been confiscated before she departed Washington, and she would have lost the entire $1,099 she paid.

Like Gladbach, a small but worrisome number of travelers are duped each year by unscrupulous travel firms selling invalid tickets - whether counterfeit, stolen or otherwise obtained illegally. And the problem seems to be getting worse. More than 350,000 blank airline tickets were reported stolen or missing in 1994, which is a jump of 66.5 percent in losses over 1993, according to a lead story in the Jan. 30 issue of Travel Weekly, an industry publication.

Somewhat shaken but relieved her loss wasn’t greater, Gladbach was willing to talk about her experience as a warning to other travelers. Her error, if one can call it that, was in trusting an out-of-town company about which she knew little or nothing. She made one or two precautionary checks to reassure herself that she wasn’t being cheated, but obviously they weren’t enough. In today’s often confusing travel market, when many tempting bargains are being promoted, the old adage still applies: Buyer beware.

As a result of the incident, Magic Travel, the firm from which Gladbach purchased her ticket, is under investigation both by U.S. Postal inspectors in New York, because it operated out of New York City, and by the Airlines Reporting Corp., a service company owned jointly by major U.S. airlines. (The corporation is the central clearinghouse for distribution of airline ticket revenues.) Both Mike Kmetz, public information officer for the Postal Inspection Service, and David Collins, president of the Airlines Reporting Corp., declined to comment on the specifics of the case while the investigation is under way. Magic Travel’s advertised tollfree number no longer is in operation, and nobody answered repeated calls earlier this month to its local New York number. Later, the New York number was disconnected.

Gladbach, a program manager for the Institute of International Education, traveled to Bangkok in January on a combined business and pleasure trip. In search of a discounted fare, she consulted her employer’s in-house travel agency, the institute’s Bangkok office and about 10 travel firms advertising in the newspaper. The in-house agency quoted a round-trip fare of $1,700, she says; the Bangkok office could provide a $1,600 ticket; but Magic offered the best deal at $1,099, which she snapped up. Magic Travel’s small ads appeared in The Post only in November and December.

Such disparity in trans-Pacific fares is not unusual. Most international airlines sell seats at deeply discounted bulk rates to travel firms called consolidators, which then market them to travel agents or directly to the public. The cheap air-fare ads appearing in The Post Travel pages and in other travel sections generally are placed by legitimate consolidators or by travel agencies selling consolidator tickets. There are ways to distinguish the many firms making valid offers from the occasional bad apple.

To snare the unwary, illicit travel firms typically will price air fares just below the prevailing rate charged by legitimate operators, says Hoyte B. Decker of the Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division. “A $10 break might do the job.”

Gladbach dealt with Magic Travel over the phone, she says, and at the firm’s request sent a personal check by Federal Express to New York. As it turned out, this was a mistake. Although all of the firms that she called told her they required personal or cashier’s checks, many consolidators do accept credit card charges. Credit cards provide a substantial measure of protection for your money if something goes wrong. Washington-based Euram, one of the nation’s leading consolidators, recommends using credit cards.

When Gladbach’s ticket arrived, she noted that it carried the name of a California travel agency rather than that of Magic Travel, and the price listed was $2,144 (not the $1,099 she actually paid). This made her slightly suspicious, as it should have, and she checked with Northwest to confirm her reservation. Yes, it was in the computer, she was told. On the outward leg of the trip, she flew on ANA, the Japanese airline; she returned on Northwest. She had no inkling her ticket was false and encountered no problems until she landed in Detroit on Jan. 19.

Gladbach is not angry at Northwest for confiscating her ticket. Rather, she is complimentary in her remarks about the treatment she received in Detroit. Agents there were very polite, she says, and waived the customary 14-day advance purchase requirement for her substitute ticket so she could get the cheapest fare available to Washington. LuAnn Warren in Northwest’s counterfeit ticket office, who confirms Gladbach’s story, says the airline quickly realized Gladbach was as much a victim as the airline itself. As it turned out, the suspect ticket was printed on paper different from what Northwest regularly uses, says Warren. Presumably, neither Northwest nor ANA will collect any of Gladbach’s original payment of $1,099.

Though Gladbach’s ticket was counterfeit, stolen tickets also are sold to unsuspecting travelers. While the number of stolen or missing tickets jumped by 66.5 percent last year, they amount to only a small fraction of the 1 billion blank tickets the Airlines Reporting Corp. ships out annually to 45,000 accredited travel agencies, says president Collins.

In the Travel Weekly story, Collins cited four major ways in which the tickets disappeared, and he reconfirmed his remarks for this column. A total of 43 travel agents took off with the tickets they held last year after they lost their accreditations, and another 15 agents sold tickets without intending to pay the airlines. Travel agencies also were subject to numerous nighttime burglaries and 25 armed robberies.

Most travelers probably wouldn’t be able to distinguish a valid ticket from a worthless one, says Collins. To best protect themselves, they should buy only from travel agents or consolidators that have a record of providing reliable service. “If you get something over the phone that sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”