For travel sellers, the sentencing earlier this month of former Tom Harper Cruises frontman Bret Gordon to nearly four years in prison for defrauding hundreds of river cruise customers served as a reminder of how to conduct business so that neither they nor their clients get duped. 

"When I search for specific cruises for my clients, I use only cruise lines I can trust, those that have been in the business for many years and have earned my confidence," said Pete Larson, owner of the specialist agency River Cruise Guru. "I protect my client's money as if it were my own."

Larson said he himself has been a victim of travel fraud in the past, so the experience hits home.

"If I were to consider selling a brand-new line or a cruise line I was not familiar with, I would be very careful," he said. "I would let that client know the risks involved up front." But ultimately, he said, "I like to do business with those that are proven winners."

Gordon established Tom Harper Cruises in 2013, the company under which the Newton, Mass.-based Tom Harper River Journeys was operated. Tom Harper River Journeys sold river cruise inventory on ships throughout Europe, Asia and Africa.

But according to court documents, soon after Tom Harper Cruises began operating, Gordon started to skim money from its bank account (mostly customer deposits) for his own use, primarily for casino gambling. Ultimately, Tom Harper Cruises became unable to pay its business expenses or the cruise companies for the river cruises booked by customers. In June 2015, Tom Harper Cruises shuttered and filed for bankruptcy.

Between September 2013 and June 2015, Gordon took about $2.26 million from Tom Harper accounts, the U.S. Attorney's Office of the District of Massachusetts reported. The court said that about 400 customers were left without the river cruises they had booked, after paying Tom Harper Cruises nearly $2.9 million.

"If an insurance company such as Allianz does not cover [a supplier] for financial default, then you should think twice," advised Susan Wolfson, owner of Allentown, Pa.-based Go Astro Travel, an Avoya Travel affiliate. "I would not book a new supplier that was not either recommended by my host agency -- i.e. on our preferred list -- or was not on the Allianz list. If the client came to me asking for it, I would offer them an alternative, and if they declined I would wish them well."

Travel sellers recommend checking with travel insurance companies to make sure that vendors are financially stable, as insurance companies often keep tabs for coverage purposes. They also noted that paying with a credit card can help customers recuperate some of their losses.

Don Baasch, owner of Las Vegas-based LastCallCruises, said, "I'm not sure how many credit cards cover a default and never assume that one does, but we always tell people when form of payment comes up that a credit card is the safest way to pay for a cruise, whether you are worried about me or the cruise company. ... We generally don't sell anything we do not feel confident about, which I suppose is a subjective judgment and decision."

In November 2016, Gordon pleaded guilty to six counts of wire fraud and two counts of filing a false personal tax return. Earlier this month, he was sentenced by the U.S. District Court in Boston to 46 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release and was ordered to pay $2.9 million in restitution to victims.

Prior to launching Tom Harper Cruises, Gordon served as COO of Vantage Deluxe World Travel.

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