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TRAVELERS ACCUSE AGENT OF SCAM

It was the dream honeymoon Sheri Kurkowski always wanted:

Seven days on a gorgeous Caribbean island, surrounded by beautiful mountains, white beaches and an ocean view.

"I think it's a honeymoon everyone dreams of," Kurkowski said with a sigh. "It was going to be our one and only chance to get away together."

Now, just two months before her wedding to Craig Schreier, that honeymoon has turned into a $2,200 nightmare, complete with all the trimmings -- unre-turned phone calls, a complaint to the state attorney general's office and a referral to her travel agent's attorney.

Kurkowski believes she has been scammed by Michelle Kasza, a travel agent whose roots reach deep into the same Kaisertown soil as Kurkowski's.

She's not alone.

"Over the past week or so, we've received some 300 complaints (against this woman) from victims who have lost a total of at least $150,000," state Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer stated Tuesday.

Kasza offered very competitive prices for trips to Hawaii, Cancun, the Caribbean, Las Vegas, New York City and a Bills-game excursion to Tampa, complainants said. She insisted on full payment in cash up front, then left some travelers dangling with no reservations, plane tickets or confirmations, they claimed. And in some cases, she used her clients' credit cards to charge flights and trips they weren't taking, her clients claimed.

Among the victims are a Depew man billed $2,285 in bogus credit card charges; a West Seneca woman still waiting for written confirmations for a $3,500 trip to Hawaii next summer; and a Kaisertown woman charged twice for a four-night, $1,200 stay in an upscale New York City hotel.

Kasza's attorney, Thomas J. Eoannou, denied any criminal intent on his client's part.

"I'm aggressively pursuing every possible avenue of restitution to these people," Eoannou said Tuesday. "We are working with the attorney general to try to resolve this so the purchasers are not hurt financially."

No charges have been filed against Kasza, Eoannou said.

"I can unequivocally say that this is not a woman who, in any way, shape or form, tried to deny people their trips," he added. "I believe there will be an explanation for this. I believe that she may have been victimized as well."

But the victims paint a different portrait of Kasza, who worked as a travel agent out of her residence along Buffalo's waterfront.

They claimed that she won over potential customers through a network of friends and relatives in Kaisertown, South Buffalo and the Southtowns.

"One reason everyone went with her was that she mentioned her grandfather, who owned a store in Kaisertown," Kurkowski said. "It's a close-knit neighborhood. She used names to lure you in, to come to her."

Here are some of the complaints, mostly from people unwilling to give their full names:

A Depew man went on a $1,600 trip to St. Martin's with a friend in July. There was no problem with the trip, but he said Kasza asked for his credit card number to confirm his flight, even after he had paid the full amount in cash.

He got his big surprise when he looked at his August credit card statement.

"Sure enough, I had trips to Las Vegas, two Jet Blue flights to Utah and two US Airways flights to Washington, D.C.," he said. "It came to a total of $2,285.15. None of that was for me."

He's now seeking reimbursement for the bogus trips and trying to figure how he was duped.

"She was very, very personable and seemed to know what she was talking about," he said.

Back in June, a West Seneca woman booked a trip to Hawaii for next summer, paying the full amount with a check for about $3,500.

Despite receiving assurances that everything was all right, the woman has received no confirmations of her flights or hotel reservations. After calling Kasza about 15 times and speaking with her only once, she wrote a certified letter asking for a full refund.

Still no word.

A Kaisertown woman wrote a $1,100 check to Kasza in April for a five-day trip to New York City for three people in June.

The flights were fine, but when the group checked out of the Marriott Marquis, the hotel still hadn't found any confirmation of payment. So the woman had to use a credit card to pay the hotel bill -- about $1,200.

Several times, the Kaisertown woman said, Kasza assured her it was a misunderstanding that would be cleared up.

"As of today, it still is not taken care of," the woman said Tuesday. "And the (hotel) bill is for more than I paid for the whole trip."

Before realizing she had been duped, the woman also sent Kasza $3,000 for a trip to Hawaii. So she's now out $4,200, with no assurance that she will go on that trip.

The attorney general's office, which is seeking restitution for the victims, wants to hear from any other potential victims, who are asked to call (800) 771-7755. The attorney general has the power to bring criminal charges if criminal intent is found.

Meanwhile, Spitzer advised travelers not to pay in cash, not to pay all the money up front and to check with the Better Business Bureau before dealing with an unknown travel agent.

A lot of people who should have known better got lured in by a woman who seemed extremely knowledgeable about airlines, hotels and the best deals available.

"Her best advertising was her own self," the West Seneca woman said. "She came loaded with names of people I knew. She led you to believe that all these people had booked trips with her. The girl did her homework."

Many of the people who fear they have been scammed still are waiting to see whether they will be able to take the trip they have already paid for. Others are resigned to a lost vacation, hoping to get full or partial restitution.

And Kurkowski wonders whether she will have a honeymoon. She has called the resort in St. Lucia and learned that nothing has been booked for her.

"There's no way we can afford to pay another $2,200," she said. "You work to pay your bills. We're trying to save for a house and for a wedding, and I gave her $2,200. You feel like you're too trusting.

"I could just cry."

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