Her mother's daughter

ackie Ceren will tell you that she has been a travel agent practically all of her life. And she's not kidding. Ceren first walked into her mother's agency when she was just 9 years old.

"I used to go to work with my mother," Ceren said. "So, I have grown up in this business."

And Ceren can tell you stories about how the recession in the 1980s impacted her mother's agency, and how a fire at a telephone switching center left the agency without phone service and computer connectivity for weeks.

But now, at age 40, this wife, mother of two children and veteran travel agent has taken on a new challenge.

For Jackie Ceren, the travel agency business was the family business. Now, the veteran travel agent has set her sights on a career in travel law. In addition to working six days a week, Ceren is going to law school at night with the intention of specializing in travel law.

Now, that would be inspiring enough, until you understand how she got to this point.

About six years ago, long before travel agent Sarah Hall launched her class-action suit against the major airlines, there was another agent making headlines for taking on the carriers. She also captivated the media with a warning that today almost seems prophetic.

Her name was Barbara Pisa. She ran an agency based in Naperville, Ill., called Classic Travel.

Pisa contended that debit memos related to stolen ticket stock were costing already victimized agencies millions of dollars.

Pisa said some agencies that were unable to pay for the lost stock were forced to declare bankruptcy and shut down. But that wasn't the worst of it.

Pisa argued that a rash of agency burglaries in the late 1990s that took place in various cities around the country were far from random. Indeed, Pisa argued they were the work of organized crime.

Some law enforcement officials familiar with agency robberies agreed.

Through her efforts and those of other agents who had been victimized, Pisa in October 1997 convened the Travel Agency Burglary Conference in Lisle, Ill., which months later led to hearings on Capitol Hill before the House Aviation subcommittee.

During the conference and the hearing, Pisa warned that aside from the negative economic impact on agencies, stolen tickets posed a national security threat because they likely were sold on the black market to criminals, drug smugglers and, indeed, terrorists who could use them along with other falsified documents to travel around the country below law enforcement radar.

Her arguments even convinced NBC's "Dateline" newsmagazine and CNN to do reports on stolen tickets.

This issue has pretty much died as more travelers use electronic tickets, and Pisa now has retired to Las Vegas.

But few know that Pisa wasn't working alone. In fact, it was Pisa's daughter who, behind the scenes, had conducted much of the research about stolen tickets and their potential sale on the black market.

And Pisa's daughter is, you guessed it, Jackie Ceren.

"[Pisa] was afraid for me," Ceren said, explaining why she stayed largely in the background. "I have two little kids, and I am her only daughter."

Ceren said she had appeared on local news shows and CNN reports. At times, Ceren said, "we would have two news crews in our office."

But all of that media attention didn't go unnoticed. Ceren said they were hassled by certain carriers.

For instance, she said, "Every time I flew, I was security-checked. And that was back in 1998," before today's enhanced security measures made such checks common.

Many of the issues broached back then are still relevant today, if not more so, Ceren said.

To draw attention to the stolen ticket problem, Ceren and her mother sent letters to lawmakers discussing various scenarios, including one suggesting an airplane hijacking by a criminal traveling on a stolen ticket.

"We raised that issue then, but nobody did anything," Ceren said.

It is unclear whether any of the tickets used by the Sept. 11 terrorists were printed on stolen ticket stock, but Ceren said that remains a danger.

"I don't think security is ever going to get to where it should be," she said.

Still, Ceren, who purchased her mother's 30-year-old agency in 1998, said working on the stolen ticket issue, getting the story out to the media and finally persuading the House Aviation subcommittee to hold a hearing on the subject all played a role in inspiring her to consider a second career in law.

"[I thought], if I can find out all this information [on stolen tickets] and help my mother get a congressional hearing, I can go back to school and become a lawyer," Ceren said. "So that's how it started."

For the past two years Ceren has been taking law courses at night -- not an easy thing to do given the long hours at work each day. The workdays got even longer after the terrorist attacks last year.

"It probably is going to take me a good four more years to finish," Ceren said.

But Ceren isn't complaining because, when all is said and done, she loves the travel industry.

"Why am I still a travel agent? Ask my husband. He'll tell you I'm nuts," Ceren said with a laugh. "But I think there is something about this industry. Once it gets in your blood, you can't leave. So I decided I had to go back to school [to become a lawyer]. I would rather sue the airlines than sell their airline tickets."

-- Michael Milligan

Safeguarding your personal assets

f I have money in a 401(k) plan and I'm sued, will I lose those funds to creditors?
Such funds usually are safe because they are protected in bankruptcy. However, some states have passed laws that affect IRAs and other self-employed retirement plans. It's important that you keep this money safe. Ask your attorney about protection of these funds in your state.

Dan McManus.Will business credit card activity be reported on a personal credit report?
Assuming you own your agency or you're a partner in it, then the answer is yes. A business credit card will be included in your personal credit history.

Corporations are set up to protect personal assets from liability, which is why credit card applications ask about the legal structure of your business so that it can clearly define the responsibility of any debt.

Why are mortgage rates so much lower than commercial rates for my agency?
Commercial loan rates are generally higher because they are typically riskier. More commercial loans go unpaid than home mortgages. Mortgage rates have real estate as collateral, and real estate usually increases in value.

A commercial venture puts up its assets as collateral, which usually translates into office furniture, computers and other equipment.

These depreciate in value, making them less likely to cover the debt in the event of default.

If you are shopping for a loan for your agency, it is better to get a line of credit from your bank, even at a higher rate.

If you own your home, you can get a less expensive rate if you base the loan on the equity in your home. But keep in mind that your risk jumps substantially.

Consider that if the business can't pay back the loan, it likely can't pay you a salary either. So you would lose both your job and your home.

Keep your nest egg safe, even if you have to pay a higher rate.

Former agency owner Dan McManus is president of the McManus Group, publishers of business management advice. Contact him at [email protected].

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