Bamboozled: January 7, 2015

famIt seems the customers of the now defunct Club ABC Tours are soon getting at least some of their money back.

But at least a few are not happy about it.

First, the background.

Back in 2012, some customers of Club ABC Tours found themselves stuck overseas with no travel arrangements and no reservations. Others learned they didn’t have return flights booked. The lucky ones learned the company went out of business before their departure dates.

They had all paid for their trips in full.

The complaints came in.

In August 2013, the state filed a civil suit against Club ABC Tours, also known as Crown Travel, an affiliated company called ABC Destinations and the two brothers who ran the companies: Robert Paris and Thomas Paris.

At the time, the state said approximately 52 customers were stranded in Italy when the company went belly up on Oct. 1, 2012, while about 200 others paid for travel packages that would have taken place after that date.

Allegations included violations of the Consumer Fraud Act and advertising regulations for selling tours and continuing to advertise while the company was insolvent.

When the suit was filed, the state alleged the Paris brothers and the companies stole nearly $1 million from hundreds of clients.

“Their intent was never to subsidize the Paris brothers’ luxury cars and six-figure salaries while sacrificing their vacations,” said acting attorney general John Hoffman said at the time.

Hoffman said his office would strive for full restitution for the customers.

But the settlement, which was announced in September, included a little more than half that, with a payment of $525,000 towards restitution plus another $119,000 in civil penalties which would be dropped if the brothers satisfied the terms of the agreement.

The customers we spoke to were glad to hear some money would be coming back to them, but many were disappointed or angry about the amount of the settlement.

Part of that anger stems from what the state learned about the Paris brothers as part of its investigation. It said Club ABC Tours paid Robert Paris $275,000 and paid Thomas Paris $225,000 in 2011. 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, the state said.

“I waited three years for this and I’ll get pennies on the dollar,” said Perry Shapiro of Margate, a customer who paid $5,500 to Club ABC for a trip to Morocco that would have happened a few weeks after the company shut down. “Where is the justice?”

Shapiro said the documents he’s seen from the state didn’t indicate how much of a refund he’d receive, but he doesn’t expect it to be more than 10 percent of what he paid.

“First I get screwed by ABC, then the agency that is supposed to be looking out for me,” he said. “And not a word mentioned about any jail time, so the criminals win yet again. If you can hire a big enough lawyer, you get away with a slap on the wrist.”

Also upset was Sue Gorton, who paid about $3,000 for an 8-day trip to Sicily with two friends. They learned the company shut down about a week before their departure date, and they learned the reservations made by Club ABC Tours were never paid.

“I am disappointed in the State of New Jersey,” Gorton said. “The Paris brothers got off easy. “We worked for 100 percent of the money. We should get 100 percent back.”

Joanne Craw was supposed to travel to Italy with Gorton. She she doesn’t know what her restitution will be, but she said it should be the full amount she paid.

“I missed a great trip and will never get that time back again with my friends,” she said. “The Paris brothers got away with murder, almost. They should rot in hell to pay for what they did to us innocents.”

Robert Paris didn’t respond to requests for comment via email and through LinkedIn, on which Paris’ profile describes him as a “Founder/VP Director Business Development” in South Florida, but it doesn’t mention a company name.

Thomas Paris still has Club ABC Tours listed as his employer on LinkedIn. He, too, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

We checked in with Consumer Affairs to learn more about the restitution payments.

It said in November 2015, the agency mailed 200 letters to consumers who had filed complaints prior to the settlement, and who had also provided “adequate financial documentation substantiating their losses.” Consumers were instructed to respond by Dec. 11, and those who disagreed with the restitution calculations of losses were asked for additional documentation.

Consumer Affairs said it also sent emails requesting documents from another 50 consumers.

The agency said it has received responses from 236 consumers and it’s waiting for responses from the remaining 14.

A spokeswoman wouldn’t comment on how much consumers should expect to get in restitution or whether there was a percentage expected, but she said eligible consumers can expect to receive restitution checks within the next several months.

We asked why the customers weren’t getting full restitution.

Consumer Affairs said it always strives to recover as much as it can for injured consumers when it negotiates settlements, but other factors come into play.

“We must balance the likelihood of obtaining a meaningful sum from the defendant to repay to consumers against having to try the case and possibly getting a judgment for less than the settled amount, or getting a judgment that makes consumers whole but is never actually paid by or recoverable from the defendant, spokeswoman Lisa Coryell said. “Moreover, this judgment does not bar consumers from filing civil suits against the companies and their principals to collect any additional sums they believe are due to them.”

That makes all the sense in the world.

If you’re one of those expecting restitution, drop us a line when you receive a check.

Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.