Ex-agent accused of fraud is free on bail

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ORLANDO -- A former travel agent is free on bond here after being charged with defrauding five travel agencies of at least $400,000 in an airline ticketing scam operated from 1995 until early 1998.

The former agent, Richard Henri Vissers, 59, of Cocoa, Fla., had been charged with organized scheme to defraud -- a first-degree felony under Florida statutes, punishable by up to 30 years in prison. He was released after a bonding company put up the required $100,000.

The allegations of fraud centered on Vissers' operation of Computer Travel Systems in Melbourne, Fla. He previously operated Beach Side Travel, also in Melbourne, but ARC declared that firm in default and terminated it in 1994.

What follows is an outline of how the scam worked, based on Travel Weekly interviews with Florida law enforcement officials and two of the victimized agency owners.

Vissers paid the agencies $10 or $15 per ticket to issue domestic or international air tickets for his corporate clients at rates that were up to 86% less than normal Y fares.

The firm's contract with the agencies stated that they were to use authorization numbers for wholesale ticketing (for entry in the tour box). The numbers, Vissers told agents, were confidential and negotiated only on behalf of the corporate clients of his firm, Computer Travel Systems, Melbourne, Fla.

Vissers, meanwhile, billed his clients for substantially higher fares, which they willingly paid because they still saved up to 14% from the published Y fare; they also received a 17% rebate from Vissers.

Vissers pocketed the difference between the high fares paid by his clients and the low fares booked by the agencies.

Vissers' contract with the agencies stated that he would resolve any ticketing problems, including debit memos. And sure enough, debit memos there were.

Airline auditors checked the codes on flight coupons, found them "undercollected" and issued debit memos for thousands of dollars, demanding that agents pay the difference between the discount fare and the Y fare.

After receiving the debit memos, agents learned that the code numbers, such as AA3425532, were bogus, and that the airlines had no business relationship with Vissers for corporate discounts.

According to Linda Lammers, owner of Gateway Travel, Pleasanton, Calif., and Betty Carl, former owner of Osceola Travel, Kissimmee, Fla., and St. Cloud (Fla.) Travel, Vissers supplied fictitious wholesale code and AD75 numbers for America West, American, British Airways, Continental, Delta, Lufthansa, Martinair, Midwest Express, Northwest, Southwest, Taca, TWA, United and US Airways.

Lammers, who was hit with $120,000 worth of debit memos, filed a criminal complaint against Vissers in Florida.

She also filed a civil suit in California against Vissers and his company, as well as Automatic Data Processing (ADP), the firm Vissers identified as his corporate "partner." ADP has offices in San Ramon, Calif., Roseland, N.J., and elsewhere.

Vissers had contracted for Gateway to issue some 600 low-fare tickets for ADP employees all over the U.S. In each case, the Y fare was $600 or more, the suit said.

Lammers told Travel Weekly that American Express, ADP's in-plant agency in New Jersey, would forward such reservations to Gateway.

Continental, Northwest and US Airways pulled their plates from Gateway in 1997 as a result of unpaid debit memos. Lammers said settlements were reached with Continental, Northwest and other carriers but not with US Airways.

Gateway's civil suit was filed in Superior Court for the County of Alameda (Calif.)-Eastern Division and alleges breach of contract, embezzlement and other irregularities.

ADP, in its response, denied direct responsibility for the agency's debit memos, saying Gateway had been paid for its services and had been reckless, careless and negligent itself.

Betty Carl, who no longer owns but still manages Osceola Travel and St. Cloud Travel, acknowledged that she was "too trusting" in her dealings with Vissers.

She paid about $30,000 in debit memos starting in 1995; the airlines were unsympathetic to the fraud, she said.

For about a year, Vissers had maintained an honest business relationship with Carl's agencies, so that when he proposed the discount ticket arrangement, she trusted him.

Other agency victims identified by Florida authorities include DA Travel & Tours, Orlando; Global Travel & Tours, Melbourne, Fla., and HMI Travel, Herndon, Va.

In related news, Lammers of Gateway Travel, established an e-mail location, [email protected], to which agents can send information describing incidents of fraud they have experienced.

She plans to create a Web site with fraud warnings in the future.

Fran Durbin contributed to this report.

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