March 27, 2009
Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. announced that special agents from the California Department of Justice today arrested Abel Moses Somilleda, the owner of a vacation travel agency, who "ripped off" $55,000 from high school and college students whose 2006 trip to Cancun, Mexico was cancelled.
"Dozens of high school and college students paid hundreds of dollars for a spring break trip to Cancun, but instead of a week of vacation, these students were ripped off by the owner of Big Bad Student Travel," Brown said. "Abel Moses Somilleda promised a vacation to Mexico, but when the trip was cancelled, he pocketed the students' money instead of providing refunds."
Abel Moses Somilleda, 35, of Hawthorne, Calif., was arrested in Hawthorne by California Department of Justice Special Agents. He is charged with:
Nine counts of grand theft in violation of Penal Code section 487(a);
One count of failure to return moneys in violation of Business and Professions Code section 17550.14; and
Nine counts of failure to deliver on ticket or voucher in violation of Business and Professions Code section 17550.17(b).
Somilleda opened Big Bad Student Travel in 2004 after working for ten years in the student travel business and coordinating several trips of his own.
In 2006, Somilleda organized a spring break trip to Cancun, Mexico, for dozens of high school and college students. Students paid approximately $700 for the flight, hotel room, and expenses.
Three months before the trip, however, Somilleda learned that it would be cancelled. But instead of immediately informing those who had signed up, Somilleda continued to accept payment for the trip. It was only two or three days before the trip was scheduled to take place when Somilleda notified students that it had been cancelled.
Somilleda promised the students that they would receive a refund within several days. The students, however, never received refunds.
In total, Somilleda pocketed some $55,000. A search warrant uncovered that Somilleda had spent most of the money on his own personal expenses — including rent, dinners, groceries, and utilities.
If convicted of all charges, Somilleda faces eight years in prison.
California requires all sellers of travel to register with the California Attorney General's Office and display their registration number on all advertising. To check the registration of a Seller of Travel visit the Attorney General's website at http://www.ag.ca.gov/travel/.
To help prevent becoming a victim of travel fraud, the Attorney General's Office has offered a few tips and warning signs:
Before you pay any money, read all the terms and conditions relating to your travel services including cancellation conditions, fees and other restrictions.
You have a right in certain circumstances to have credit card charges reversed if you do not receive what you paid for. Check with your credit card company for details. This protection is not available when you make a payment with a check, money order, or cash.
Check beforehand with your local Better Business Bureau or California Department of Consumer Affairs, which may tell you how long the seller of travel has been in business, whether there have been any law enforcement actions brought against it in the past, and the nature of consumer complaints it has received, if any.
It is a good practice to confirm all of your travel arrangements directly with the businesses providing the transportation, hotel, or car rental.
While there are legitimate businesses that offer free trips, there are others that offer "free" trips to entice consumers into buying their products or services, which include hidden costs.
There are many legitimate sellers of travel that provide great deals on the Internet, but if an offer seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Sellers of travel must register every year with the Attorney General's office in order to do business or market in California. They must clearly display their registration number in all advertising materials. Do not deal with unregistered travel companies. While registration does not mean that the seller is reputable, you should avoid any seller who has not adopted the safeguards required by law to protect your payments.
Taking money without delivering goods or services that are promised can be a crime. If you believe you have been a victim of a crime, call your local police agency. If your travel seller's main place of business is in California, and under certain other circumstances, you may be entitled to make a claim for restitution from the Travel Consumer Restitution Fund. For more information about how to file a claim, please go to http://ag.ca.gov/travel/consumer.php.