Bamboozled EXTRA: State sues men behind insolvent travel agencies

81513Joanne Craw of Oakland paid nearly $3,000 for a trip to Italy with her girlfriends in 2012.

Two weeks before they were scheduled to leave, however, she learned their plans for a dream vacation together were dashed.

“We were robbed of the time and the experience, and I’d like to get my money back,” said Craw, 68.

Others fared worse, being left stranded without hotel rooms or tickets home when their travel provider suddenly closed shop that October.

On Tuesday, New Jersey filed suit against the two brothers who owned and operated Bloomfield-based Crown Travel Services, also known as Club ABC Tours, and an affiliated company, ABC Destinations.

The suit names Robert Paris, 59, of Greenwich, Conn., and Thomas Paris, 61, of New York City along with the companies and alleges they stole more than $1 million from from hundreds of clients..

“The state is taking action on behalf of hundreds of consumers who managed to save up significant sums of money during a difficult economic downturn in order to enjoy the vacations of their dreams with their loved ones,” said acting attorney general John Hoffman. “Their intent was never to subsidize the Paris brothers’ luxury cars and six-figure salaries while sacrificing their vacations.”

Hoffman said his office will “strive for full restitution for the 230 customers who lost more than $1 million.”

Craw considers herself among the lucky ones. Other travelers were already overseas when they learned their travel plans were not booked or pre-paid.

Jane Riesel of Fort Lee paid Club ABC more than $5,500 for a 10-day tour of Italy, departing the day after the companies closed. Her first two days of travel were fine, but then she learned the rest of her trip wasn’t booked or paid for.

“They knowingly let us go with a total lack of regard. We were stranded,” said Riesel, who also had to pay an additional $1,200 hotel bill. “How could they do this to people who saved up for a trip of a lifetime? We felt so violated. We just want to see justice done.”

The state’s lawsuit alleges the Paris brothers continued to sell the travel packages even though their companies were insolvent and were months behind on paying bills to travel providers.

The state said the brothers and their companies took money from consumers as late as Sept. 24, 2012 — a week before the companies closed for good — for trips that would take place as late as October 2013.

The Division of Consumer Affairs investigation found the companies had debts that far exceeded their assets. It said Club ABC Tours was insolvent at least as early as December 2008, and ABC Destinations was insolvent at least as early as June 2012.

That didn’t stop the brothers from getting paid, the state said. In 2011, Club ABC Tours paid Robert Paris $275,000, and paid Thomas Paris $225,000. That same year, ABC Destinations paid the brothers a distribution totaling $335,000. Club ABC Tours also purchased a Porsche and an Audi for Robert Paris in 2011 and 2012.

To date, the defendants have not provided refunds to any consumers who paid by check, the state said.

According to the suit, the Paris brothers committed multiple violations of New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act and Advertising Regulations, the state said, and it’s asking that the brothers be compelled to give up all funds and property acquired through the alleged violations and to refund money to consumers.

Under the Consumer Fraud Act, a first violation is subject to a civil penalty of up to $10,000 and subsequent violations are subject to civil penalties of up to $20,000.
Each deceptive practice or advertisement is considered a separate violation of the Consumer Fraud Act.

“Hopefully justice will be served,” said Perry Shapiro of Margate, who lost the $5,500 he paid to Club ABC Tours for a trip to Morocco that was scheduled for the same month the businesses closed down.