Travel agent takes hit for fraudulent credit card booking — is that fair?

Gay Swope owns a “mom-and-pop” travel agency called Travel World International in Lorain, Ohio. It’s the kind of shop a travel advocate like me might refer you to for the kind of personalized service you won’t find online.

US Airways likes Swope’s service, too. So much so that it decided to offload some bad debt on to her small business.

Here’s a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at what happens when a ticket booking goes wrong, which will offer some insights into the risks your travel agent takes in doing business with an airline.

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Last August, a client called to book an airline ticket for his daughter and her son. He stated he lived here in Lorain, while she lived in California. This was an emergency, his daughter needed to travel that same day to Florida due to the death of a friend. The client gave me his credit card information, home address and phone number. I issued the tickets on US Airlines and sent him the receipt.

In November, US Airways issued us a debit memo for the two tickets totaling $1,528. They explained the owner of that credit card disputed the charges. During our investigation of this matter, we discovered that the client that called to purchase the tickets was not the owner of that credit card. We also discovered that those two airline tickets were never used. The passengers were a no-show. Since then we have not been able to find the client that called to purchase the tickets, his phone number does not work and the address he gave if not valid here in our city.

Debit memos are issued by airlines when travel agents owe them money. In Swope’s case, US Airways wanted her to pay for the no-show passenger.

Here are my questions:

Why are we responsible for the $1,528?

If we took the credit card number over the phone, and it was a valid credit card, what more could we do to assure the credit card belonged to the caller?

All of the airlines allow clients to purchase tickets over the phone directly through them, how do they assure the caller is the owner of the credit card being used?

Since the travelers never used the tickets, no one is really out any money. Shouldn’t US Airways void this debit memo in this instance?

The answers are: You shouldn’t be, nothing, they can’t, and yes — I believe US Airways should void the memo.

Swope adds,

Those of us who work in this industry love it, but it is a struggle to stay in business in these tough times. The airlines give nothing back to the travel agencies even though we support them by selling their product. Do you have any ideas on how I can get US Airways to understand our situation and change their minds regarding this debit memo?

I contacted US Airways on her behalf. Here’s what it had to say in a response to Swope:

Thank you for your patience while I had my team look into this. Although there isn’t specific verbiage on our website, regarding the alleged fraudulent booking activity for this specific situation, our website does refer travel agents to ARC and ARC guidelines.

As an ARC accredited agency, travel agents agree to all of the booking practices and procedures as stipulated by ARC. In the ARC handbook, it lists ways to prevent fraudulent activity. Additionally, it notes, for credit card sales, specific steps that must be followed or the carrier can invoice the sale back to the travel agent.

From the email below, it would appear that not all of those guidelines, as determined by ARC, may have been followed. (Obtaining credit card info over the phone and getting an approval code does not validate that purchase as the card could be stolen or being used without the cardholder’s authorization.)

I understand the frustration of your situation; you do offer the airline a lot of business and work very hard. While I’m not able to offer you any different resolution than you’ve found previously, hopefully the more detailed explanation that our rules are based on ARC will help you.

Thanks for your continued business.

At least US Airways offered Swope a personal response. But I still don’t understand how she might have verified the credit card information, beyond what she did. It’s an expensive lesson for her to learn.

Swope’s case is likely to be referred to a collection agency.

Next time you visit your travel agent, take a moment to appreciate the risks they take when they do business with an airline.

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