A woman claiming to be a travel agent is facing charges under Ontario’s Travel Industry Act, following complaints from customers who say they booked thousands of dollars worth of plane tickets with her but never received them.
The Travel Industry Council of Ontario (TICO) laid the charges against Libia Guerra Paez weeks after CBC Toronto published the story of Andrea Mendez — a Mississauga woman who says she booked flights to Colombia worth nearly $5,000 from Guerra for six of her family members to visit relatives over Christmas.
Those bookings never materialized, Mendez said, and she and her husband were forced to use their credit cards to purchase tickets at the last minute for about $12,000.
But Mendez is just one of several complainants.
“This is very serious,” said Richard Smart, the CEO of TICO. “We’re up to 13 complaints and there are multiple passengers with each of these complaints.”
Peel police are also investigating the allegations.
The complainants include large groups and families who, like Mendez, allege they paid thousands of dollars for trips, in some cases over the Christmas holidays, to places including the Dominican Republic and Colombia, then at the last minute found out their bookings didn’t exist.
Guerra’s first court appearance is scheduled for April 4 at the Old City Hall courthouse.
When asked for comment Tuesday evening, Guerra responded by text, accusing CBC Toronto of publishing “false information.”
Accused could face fines, up to 2 years in jail
She faces two Travel Industry Act charges: one count of operating as a travel agent without being registered and one count of failing to take reasonable care to prevent her company, Representaciones Neward Inc., from committing the offence of selling travel.
TICO also charged Representaciones Neward Inc, with selling travel services without being registered.
Smart said each of the charges carry a maximum penalty of a $50,000 fine and up to two years in jail.
He said TICO continues to investigate, with the alleged losses so far adding up to $50,000.
“I won’t be surprised if we receive more [complaints],” he said in a phone interview.
“When you start getting into $50,000 or more, often it’s the tip of the iceberg and I know that the police have more [complaints] than we’ve seen.”
Peel police did not provide an update on their case, except to confirm that the fraud unit is leading the investigation.
“I don’t really know how this cannot be a criminal offence,” said Mendez, adding she hopes the police investigation will also result in charges.
Some alleged victims receiving compensation
Mendez said in the past few days she received some good news connected to this story: a partial refund.
“We were actually surprised,” Mendez said of the reimbursement from Visa through her husband’s credit card insurance.
The family bought a total of six tickets to travel to Colombia this past Christmas, with two bought on her husband’s credit card, the other four on Mendez’s.
She said the credit card company is still finalizing a refund for the remaining tickets.
“That is something good for us, but unfortunately that is not going to be happening for all of us,” Mendez said, referring to other alleged victims she’s contacted, some of whom told her they paid via e-transfer or in cash.
‘Sometimes it’s cents to the dollar’
Despite the charges by TICO, the travellers don’t have any hope of compensation through the travel regulator.
“That’s the real sad situation about this,” Smart said, since TICO’s compensation fund is only eligible for people affected by a licensed agent or registered company.
Long-term, however, people could receive some payment.
If Guerra is found guilty, Smart explained that the court can levy a fine and order restitution, though the amount might not be as big as the complainants are hoping for.
“Sometimes it’s cents to the dollar and often it takes a long time.”