Bamboozled EXTRA: Tour company offers no explanation as to why it stranded customers

After sending more than a million travelers on dream vacations to exotic locations for 47 years, a New Jersey tour company has stopped operations without warning — leaving customers stranded with no place to go and no clue where their money went.

What started as a couple of consumer complaints quickly mushroomed to hundreds as word of the sudden shutdown of Bloomfield-based Club ABC Tours spread. Customers allege they paid for the trips but the company never paid for hotels, airlines or other accommodations. As recently as two days before the company shut down on Oct. 2, it was asking customers to pay cash in exchange for a discount, nearly two dozen travelers said. That means customer purchases were not covered by credit card protections.

In a brief telephone interview, Club ABC Tours co-owner Robert Paris refused to explain what’s gone wrong.

“We hate what’s transpired,” Paris said. “We let them down.”

That’s not good enough for customers like Jane Riesel of Fort Lee, who found herself stranded in Rome with her boyfriend, Mal Petrak, after they paid Club ABC more than $6,000 in cash for a 10-day tour of Italy.

The pair paid cash in April to take advantage of a discount offered by the company, and used Riesel’s credit card points to pay for airfare.

They departed a day after Club ABC locked its doors.

“They knew that we were going to be stranded and they let us leave,” Riesel said.

The first two days of the trip went according to plan, she said, but at 8 p.m. on the third day, the tour group was notified of “an emergency meeting” in the lobby via notes slipped in under hotel room doors.

That’s when the flustered  tour guide told travelers none of their reservations had been paid for, including for the hotel they were staying in, Riesel said.

“She said, ‘Nothing has been paid for and everything has been canceled and this hotel has been booked up so after tomorrow, I don’t know where you’re going to stay,’” Riesel said.

Paris’ apology may not help hundreds of others customers who learned in the past two weeks that the company had closed, taken down its website and stopped answering the phone.

“Unfortunately, a very tough market inhibited cash to the point that we were unexpectedly deluged with demands from suppliers who also had bad economies to contend with,” Paris wrote in a LinkedIn message.

Since Oct. 2, at least 166 travelers have filed complaints with the Division of Consumer Affairs, reporting that without warning from Club ABC, they learned their vacations didn’t exist. Some got the news from other travelers when they arrived at the airport. Others actually flew overseas to find none of the arrangements had been paid for in advance. And even more were scheduled to depart in the weeks to come.

Trip Mate, the company travelers were told was providing insurance on the trips, said it has received 200 inquiries from customers who said policies were supposed to have been purchased by Club ABC, but were never paid for.

Asked for details on where the company stands or what will happen to customers, Paris, who co-owns the company with his brother, Thomas Paris, and according to his LinkedIn profile has been with Club ABC Tours since 1992, refused to comment.

Riesel, who had to pay a $1,000-plus bill with the hotel before leaving, said she thinks this is more than “bad economies,” and she wants answers from Club ABC.

“There was a couple on our trip who paid for it in cash a day or two before, and (Club ABC) just took the money,” she said. “They took their money and they knew. Where is that money?”

That’s precisely what customer Perry Shapiro of Margate is asking.

“It went into the pockets of the Paris brothers,” he said. “This is something I believe was premeditated, which is why they were enticing people to pay by check or debit card. Once that was done, the money was gone.”

Shapiro’s experience with the company runs deep. He’s been a member for more than 20 years, logging more than a dozen successful trips overseas, and he’s recommended Club ABC to friends.

But on Oct. 6, three hours before Shapiro’s friends were to board a plane to Ireland, he learned Club ABC Tours  had gone out of business.

“They were told no hotel reservation nor tour arrangements were made for their trip,” Shapiro said. “The paper vouchers they had from ABC were worthless as nothing had been paid for by ABC.”

Shapiro is out of money, too. In April, he booked an excursion to Morocco, scheduled to depart Nov.6. He paid $3200 for the 10-day trip with a debit card to take advantage of a discount offered, something he said Club ABC tours had never offered before.

He learned last week the company never paid for his trip, or for the trip insurance included in the price.

Club ABC Tours veteran travelers Joanne Craw, Sue Gorton, Carolyn Janner and another friend should be boarding a plane next week to Sicily for an eight-day trip run by Club ABC Tours. They also paid cash – about $3000 each – for a discount, but they now know the reservations made by Club ABC Tours were never paid for.

“Our dream vacation has been ruined,” Craw said. “We have been duped by this company and want restitution.”

Court records show neither Club ABC, its parent company Crown Travel Service nor the Paris brothers have filed for bankruptcy.

“Many companies have gone out of business or even gone bankrupt with dignity and respect for consumers,” Gorton said.  “Why not try to honor all travelers who paid in full for their trips?”