With Northwest's Help, Ticket Scammer Ruins College Student's Volunteer Trip

Jennifer and 7 other students at the University of California San Diego went through a ticket broker at lastminutefares.net to purchase their airfare for a volunteer trip to Ghana. Their broker, “Michelle Shaw,” turned out to be a scammer who took their money and disappeared—but not before she sent two of the seven tickets to the students as a “you can trust me” gesture. Despite repeated assurances by Northwest that at least the two tickets in their possession were still valid and couldn’t be tampered with, Michelle Shaw managed to cash one in for a refund sometime in the past few weeks, which Jennifer discovered this weekend when she double-checked their status. Now Northwest is saying they can’t help her, and that no matter what their CSRs told her before, this Michelle Shaw woman technically owns the tickets.

I don’t know if this is your typical fraud story, but I’ve read the success stories on your site so I thought I would seek out your advice.

In December, 8 other students and I purchased round trip tickets from San Diego,CA to Accra, Ghana departing July 10th from lastminutefares.net representative Michelle Shaw. This is for a three week volunteer trip we are all taking through Alternative Breaks, UCSD. She was an awful travel agent and after we had all paid, she kept putting off sending us e-tickets with various excuses. Naturally, we were suspicious and demanded our tickets or a refund. She responded by sending us two confirmed tickets through Northwest which, when we checked with a Northwest agent, were valid. After further pressure for the other tickets she failed to send them and we contacted our credit card agencies to report fraud. Seven students were able to get refunds through their credit cards.

I, because at the time I had a valid ticket, was told by my credit card that I couldn’t claim fraud because I had technically received the goods promised to me. My friend, Caitlin, was in the same boat. In the meantime Michelle Shaw (a terrible woman and also a very bad speller) disappeared.

Caitlin and I were at a loss and contacted Northwest to find out if we could block our tickets from being tampered with by the scammer. We were assured verbally several times that it was secure, but were refused written confirmations (this was after we both contacted Northwest separately). After being shuffled through several agents we finally reached someone who agreed to notate on our account that our tickets could not be altered by the agent (oh ya I forgot to mention Michelle got my name wrong-Jennier instead of Jennifer- and Northwest repeatedly told me the agent had to change this mistake despite the fact I said OVER AND OVER AGAIN THAT SHE NO LONGER EXISTED AND HAD SCAMMED 7 OF OUR MEMBERS! Sorry, too much yelling there, but come on!). They promised me that I would not have a problem with the minor name change, but still refused to change it.

Unsatisfied, I had a friend who works at the UCSD Res Life office with me call and pretend to be my concierge (Ha! We’re staying in hostels!) to doubly check that my ticket was safe and to try to get my name changed. After talking to several different people over the course of the week she was unable to get my name corrected, but confirmed with two different agents that my ticket was safe.

Stupidly, I relaxed. This is my first major trip and I thought everything was now ok (this is the end of January/beginning of February). Tonight, on a whim, I double checked my ticket through Northwest and saw that it had been REFUNDED! Amid hiccups and sobs I spoke to a Northwest agent supervisor, Sandra Dee (no, really, Grease lightening!) from the Seattle office, who confirmed that this was in fact true, the agent had filed for a refund on February 20th! I should have checked my ticket earlier, but since “the incident” I had checked it about every week and (again, stupidly) stopped around the end of February/beginning of March. I called Caitlin, but her ticket is still there and not refunded, so she doesn’t know what to do.

I explained my situation to Sandra (this whole time looking ridiculous because I couldn’t stop crying) and how I had been promised by at least three agents that this would not happen. In a very, very nice, appeasing way she said tough shit. Apparently, because I bought a consolidated ticket through an agency, the agency has sole control of the ticket and Northwest has no control if they ask for a refund. The ticket essentially belongs to the agent. This made no sense to me and I asked Sandra to explain further and she tried, but it still made no sense to me. I asked about the notation that had been made on my account and she read it back to me as “Northwest cannot make changes to this ticket made on Jan. 27th by C.” I was shocked. I told her that I had been told the notation said “the booking agent cannot make changes.” She had no reply, other than they should not have promised me that. When I asked why this system would be in place if it allows blatant fraud like this to happen and why I had been explicitly told it would not happen she said that “This doesn’t usually happen.” Well, that helps!

She clearly felt bad for me because at this point I had run out of tears ans was dry heaving and snotting all over the phone. She suggested I immediately call my credit card company and report the charge (I already called Visa, I have to wait until my bank opens tomorrow to dispute the charge). She offered to sell me the ticket for the original lowest price offered despite it being sold out. I had payed $1980 for the original ticket (b/c it was the cheaper consolidated price) and she offered it to me for $2500. I wailed that I didn’t have an extra $500, but she claimed there was no way to offer me the ticket at the agency price.

I’m not trying to be a matyr, but I work two jobs (around 40 hours a week) in addition to school in order to pay for tuition and this trip. Before this I was going to have JUST enough money to pay the program fee for our volunteer trip, but now with the ticket mix up even if I get my money refunded through the credit card I can no longer afford to go on a trip that I have been working towards all year (we have done a bunch of fundraisers and have spent all year learning about Ghanaian culture, plus the anticipation has just, in general, been building since October).

I just don’t know what to do. I read the Guide to Fighting back and it says to get in touch with executives. I saw that Delta and Northwest merged, so should I try to find Delta CEO Richard Anderson information? Do I just get screwed and not go on the trip? I’m graduating, which is part of why this was such a great opportunity for me–Caitlin and my plane tickets had been for an extra month after the volunteer trip so we could stay in Ghana and spend some time at Liberian refugee camp and volunteer a week at WWOOF. This is also the first time I won’t have to work in the summer in order to save for tuition.

Also, should Caitlin risk having the same thing happen to her ticket or get the refund and re-purchase a new ticket at a loss of $500 (she’s barely squeezing by too, but might be able to get the extra money)?

I’m sorry to harass you with such a long email, if you are too inundated with other emails I totally understand, but if you can offer any advice/help I would appreciate it so much.

We suspect you’re a person who trusts more easily than we do, Jennifer, what with the volunteering and the trusting Michelle Shaw and the fact that you think calling her a “very bad speller” is an adequate insult. She’s a common criminal.

The sad fact is, you got scammed. It’s a criminal issue, not a customer service issue.

Northwest should have never promised you that the tickets were yours, and they obviously lied to you about the notes in your account. You should still escalate your complaint up Northwest’s chain as well as Delta’s, and ask them why they didn’t help protect you from further abuse by this scammer as soon as you called them the first time.

Your bigger issue at this point, however, is making sure you file a criminal complaint with the police. Call your local police station or dial 911 and say you need to file a criminal complaint.

You should also contact your credit card’s fraud division and explain that the ticket was refunded without your permission, and that now you do NOT have the goods that were promised to you. That should put it back into fraud qualification.

You should also request a new credit card number, as should anyone else who gave that sort of info over to Ms. Shaw.

As far as getting to Ghana, the sad fact is you’re probably going to have to come up with more money for new tickets now. No, it’s not fair, but that’s crime for ya. We suggest you hit up any organizations you’re a member of for a short-term volunteer loan (or better yet, gift) to cover the additional cost if you really have your mind set on volunteering in Ghana this summer.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Comments

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  1. petrarch1608 says:

    wow that bites hard. Is that lastminutefares.net website just a scam? i’ll have to remember to avoid it.

  2. Call your local police station or dial 911 and say you need to file a criminal complaint.

    911? are you serious?

  3. RAREBREED says:

    It seems like the more and more everything gets expensive, the easier it becomes for scammers to leech on to consumers in need.

  4. humphrmi says:

    just checked and lastminutefares.net is now a “lander” and not an air travel website.

  5. humphrmi says:

    @pepe the king prawn: Agreed, most police depts. have a non-emergency number. Keep 911 open for people having grabbers, please.

  6. SomeoneElseNotMe says:

    That really sucks. The internet makes things way too easy for con artists — they just have to say they’re offering a “too good to be true” discount and rake in the bucks.

    I’m glad you aren’t being a “matyr” about dealing with the person who was “a very bad speller”.

  7. trk182 says:

    Funniest part is volunteering to go to “Ghana” and you get scammed. Ghana is the #2 country right behind Nigeria for Internet scamming.

  8. jwarner132 says:

    911 is for emergencies only. She should call her local police department’s non-emergency line to file a police report.

  9. @humphrmi: @pepe the king prawn:

    Just FYI, some cities don’t. My car was stolen once and I spent quite a few minutes trying to find the police department’s phone number in the phone book. When I finally got the “front desk” or whatever it was, they told me to call 911. Some cities just use 911 for everything police related.

  10. dropkickjohny says:

    I know this is too late for Jennifer, but for anyone else traveling overseas, use your local travel agent. They can get international tickets from reputable consolidators.

  11. blackmage439 says:

    Many travel agents are scammers and/or care not for your concerns. They know their industry is dying as a result of internet price-search engines, and they’ll do anything to keep their claws dug in.

    Save yourself the trouble. At the worst, go through a reputable site. Although, if previous stories are any indication, they can barely be trusted as well. At best, deal ONLY with the individual airline/hotel/car-rental business. In this day and age, you can only trust yourself to accomplish the job.

  12. bananaballs says:

    How about the state’s Attorey General’s office? In addition to the coppers?

  13. bananaballs says:

    @bananaballs: Gah, Attorney. Bad speller, indeed.

  14. FightOnTrojans says:

    @pepe the king prawn: I second that emotion. 911 is for EMERGENCIES ONLY! Look up the regular business line in the phone book (you know, that thing we had before Google) or… ummm… Google it.

  15. WorksofLife says:


    Going for a Volunteer trip? Call our offices and Our Organization (Works of Life International ministries and the With causes Charitable network) would be more than happy to cover the additional $500.00 for each of you.
    1(888)228-7320
    Too many travel related scams out there and as long as you follow the right channels it will eventually resolve itself. Your time right now would be best spent on the reason why you wanted to go on your trip in the first place… to help people. I hope that in some way this gesture will motivate you to focus on exactly that. Otherwise, you will have been scammed out of even more that the money.

  16. Buran says:

    Hmm, I think I’ll only call 911 in emergencies… maybe we need yet another commenter to chime in on this? (*sigh*).

    Anyway, at this point I’d do the chargeback — and go to the local media and go for the “Northwest doesn’t care about people in need and refuses to re-issue illegally cancelled tickets for aid volunteers” angle. SHAME THEM.

  17. acknight says:

    @jwarner132: In my county, all of those calls go to the same people in the same call center, whether you call non-emergency, any town’s non-emergency number, or 9-1-1. It is then dispatched to the appropriate detail.

  18. mike says:

    Scamming, unfortunately, is becoming harder and harder to avoid. Even decent searches on google will yield scam web sites, often paid for.

    I can understand Northwest’s stance: they can’t let the people fly just because they got scammed. I wouldn’t expect my bank to give me money after I sent a Nigerian prince my life savings.

    This is a no brainer. Stick with reputible web sites.

  19. MeOhMy says:

    @Buran:

    Hmm, I think I’ll only call 911 in emergencies… maybe we need yet another commenter to chime in on this? (*sigh*).

    Yeah, we need more commenters chiming in with POTENTIALLY WRONG information.

    Some places WANT you to use 911 for just about any contact with police, including filing reports, and that’s all there is to it.

  20. bilge says:

    In the town where I live, 911 is used for emergency and non-emergency police issues. Need a parking permit so your car won’t get ticketed when you park it overnight? Call 911. Ah, small-town life.

    But if OP is in San Diego (I’m assuming that’s the case as that’s where her intended travel was originating), she should call (619) 531-2000 or (858) 484-3154.

  21. Illusio26 says:

    Yeah, 911 is NOT only for emergencies. Some cites want you to use it for any occasion when you need a police officer (such as mine).

    A couple of weeks ago someone parked on the street blocking my driveway. I called my police station’s non-emergency line and they told me to dial 911. After looking on my city’s website, it clearly states to call 911 any time you need an officer.

  22. chrisjames says:

    @Troy F.: @Buran: Here in Atlanta, you can not file a police report by calling the station. They simply redirect you to the 911 service. Since 911 is usually well staffed, you’re not tying up anything.

  23. katylostherart says:

    as stated before, 911 is not for emergencies only. in a lot of places if you call 911 they even ask you if it’s an emergency at the beginning of the call. if it’s not they direct your call to whatever office you ask for, ie sheriff, local police, fire department, etc.

  24. joellevand says:

    I got screwed (not like this though!!!) by Priceline in 2000 and Travelocity in 2005. The final straw was AAA’s agent being a massive douche and being unable to meet the airline’s online price! Ever since, I’ve always booked directly with the airline. Hell, sometimes it’s even cheaper!

  25. jodles says:

    i’ve never heard of lastminutefares.net, but i’ve used lastminute.com and was pretty happy. but then again i took a $40 ryanair flight from london to rome, not a transcontinental flight.

    i hope you get that scammy pooper. call chris hansen! i’m sure he’d love to play along on “to catch an airline scammy predator”

  26. henwy says:

    Here’s question, if I pay for a plane ticket in someone else’s name, whose ticket is it? Since I payed for it, I would still have full authority over the ticket, right? It could probably be used to screw people as it was in this case, but I can’t see it being done any way else. The person who payed for the ticket has to have final authority over it.

    It was likely a misunderstanding between the OP and northwest. I dunno what NW could have done exactly. Could they refuse to refund a ticket based on another person’s word of fraud?

  27. IphtashuFitz says:

    I’m getting more and more disappointed with the suggestions that Consumerist posts here. I mean, really. Call 911 over this? This is an emergency that justifies calling for an immediate police response? Just who are they supposed to immediately send police cars, fire trucks, ambulances, etc. to with sirens blaring? This is the most pathetic suggestion I’ve ever seen!

  28. am84 says:

    Sad. I feel bad for her – I hope something works out and she at least gets her money back.

  29. APFPilot says:

    @IphtashuFitz:did you even read some any of the comments before you posted? +1 to the some cities use 911 for all police/crime related issues.

  30. FatLynn says:

    I hope the chargeback works with your credit card company, and Northwest should not have mislead you. I know that I was once able to “password-protect” an AA reservation that I had made for someone else, but I was the one who booked it, not the person flying.

    However, Northwest is under no obligation to match the original price on this one, because it is a fare they NEVER offered. I think that agreeing to give you the lowest published fare, even though it is sold out, is a pretty generous offer. You should not try to shame them or demand more; you should instead take this up with your credit card company for redress.

  31. Buran says:

    @Troy F.: However, to find this out, you should call their front desk first — so you should still call a non-emergency number first.

  32. MeOhMy says:

    @Buran: Or you could you know like look on the internet. This is the kind of thing you should find out in advance so you aren’t trying to figure it out when you’re short on time.

    Either way busting out the “911 is only for emergencies” in a holier-than-thou tone is pretty unproductive.

  33. sean77 says:

    Something smells fishy here. lastminutefares.net is a domain squatter directory… and according to the wayback machine, they have been since march of 07.

    You can’t buy tickets from them, all they are is a bunch of links to other sites.

  34. trujunglist says:

    I was wondering what all the commotion in the next office was…
    Looks like things are going to be OK!

  35. esd2020 says:

    Err, maybe 911 is only for emergencies in some places, but here in Washington, DC it is the officially recommended method of contacting police, fire, or EMTs for any reason (311 for other city gov’t services).

  36. Buran says:

    @Troy F.: Personally, I have a fridge magnet sticky with that info on it. I bet other cities do similar things.

  37. backbroken says:

    She said she wanted to volunteer her time in Ghana, but instead probably just ended up sending cash to Ghana. How typical!

    Seriously though, this is one of those unfortunate life lessons that get all of us at one time or another. I do feel bad for the OP since she has no recourse at this point.

  38. MoCo says:

    How were the tickets paid for? If by credit card, the cardholder’s bank should be willing to contact the merchants bank and get the address of the receiver of the credit card funds. Then call the State’s Attorney in Michelle Shaw’s area and tell them that you want to swear out a criminal complaint.

  39. MoCo says:

    Sorry, read your story again and I see that you paid by credit card. This should be relatively easy to fix. Main thing is to get the scammer’s address and whatever other info is available from the credit card company, then file a criminal complaint with the State’s Attorney.

  40. Jabberkaty says:

    Typically there is an alternate number for 911 – in Maine you can hit 311 for non-emergency issues if you can’t find the business line. Or just walk into the station, there’s usually a desk officer.

  41. With the internet nowadays, I wonder why anyone goes to a travel agent. Seriously.

    I went to one in Portland, Oregon once to see about what kind of prices they could get me for a $150 flight to Vegas (I had already looked it up online).

    They tried to give me the same flight (exactly the same flight) for $500. When I asked them if that was the lowest fare, they said yes. I told them that I fould something cheaper online and they said, “We do not deal with the internet” and gave me the most hideous face.

    Yeah.. Travel agents are a scam. Don’t use em.

  42. BuddyGuyMontag says:

    I can’t believe I’ve read this far into an article about Ghana and not one Kool-Aid joke yet.

  43. CityGuySailing says:

    Uhm, BuddyGuyMontag, not to burst your bubble: Jim Jones was Guyana, in South America, not Ghana, in Africa.

  44. Chris Walters says:

    @BuddyGuyMontag: Do you mean Guyana?

  45. picardia says:

    Good travel agents are a blessing; I work regularly with one who is happy to work with internet bargain fares and sometimes finds me better rates even than I found myself. And when things go wrong on a trip, trust me, you are better having a good travel agent to call than Travelocity’s help line, which will just make you wait 30 minutes on hold before somebody in India says they can’t assist you. You can’t find a good travel agent online; you need to ask around, get recommendations and find somebody who is patient, on the ball and genuinely out to build a relationship with you rather than bilk you of a few bucks now.

    ITA that this is primarily a criminal problem, but I also think the airline should’ve been warier about that refund given that she’d raised fraud concerns more than a month beforehand.

  46. FatLynn says:

    @picardia: I’m just not sure that they could have been; I think the ticket belongs to the person who paid for it. If there is a policy of refunding the ticket minus a change fee or something like that, Northwest doesn’t really have grounds to deny that refund. That’s the same reason they weren’t able to change the name on the ticket.

    Let’s say my company travel department books me and a coworker on a flight to somewhere nice for business. I decide I am going to quit my job, but before I turn in notice, I call the airline and ask them to change my coworker’s name to my husband’s name and not to allow any changes whatsoever to the reservation. Would it be a good idea for the airline to allow that?

  47. Coles_Law says:

    This really is unfortunate, but I’d hardly put the blame on Northwest. If I buy a “Rolex” on a street corner in NYC and find out it’s a fake (surprise!), Rolex is under no obligation to offer me a real one for the amount I paid.

    That being said, chargeback is the ay to go. I hope she gets the extra money for the ticket.

  48. DeltaPurser says:

    Hey… I think you need to focus your energy on going after the bad guy: the travel agent, not the airline. As much as you hate hearing it, NW did nothing wrong…

  49. DeltaPurser says:

    @Phillip M. Vector: Actually, larger travel agencies sometimes negotiate low bulk-fares from the airlines which they usually pass on to the passengers. For example, if the regular fare from NYC to London in $1000, ABC Travel will sign a contract with the airline and say “sure, we’ll buy 1,000 tickets this year if you sell them to us for $750″. Then they will do whatever they can to sell those to you for anything in between… Everybody wins! Well, that’s the idea at least…

  50. BuddyGuyMontag says:

    @CityGuySailing: @Chris Walters: Spelling was never my strong suit!

  51. AustinTXProgrammer says:

    Most credit card transactions can only be disputed within 90 days, but the credit card company may be able to help through some form of fraud insurance.

  52. @BuddyGuyMontag: and it was Flavor-Aid, not Kool-Aid.

  53. jwissick says:

    You call 911 over this in my area and you will get a good talking to from the dispatcher. 911 is overloaded in my area and regularly takes 5 minutes + before you get a live person.

  54. jwissick says:

    Oh.. And contact the local news and papers… tell your story and you might get a viewer who is willing to gift you the tickets…..

    This is prime human interest material.

  55. gomakemeasandwich says:

    People still fly Northwest?

  56. BugMeNot2 says:

    @pepe the king prawn: My thoughts exactly. What a completely inappropriate use of the emergency line.

  57. Jteschle says:

    Hi! This is the idiot who got scammed and sent her story to the consumerist (thanks for posting consumerist)! While I’m pretty embarrassed that I misspelled martyr, I’m also kindof impressed that in my 3:30am haze I edited out all of the F@#%#$ and C%^$!#$!!@’s…
    Thank you everyone for the valid advice, my bank is working on investigating a charge dispute despite it being beyond the 90 day limit since my ticket was not scheduled until July and through a friend I was able to find a ticket at a comparable price.
    I know that Northwest is not responsible for the fraud and it was my fault for trusting a scam artist despite the warning signs, but I am still upset that when I tried to remedy the situation months ago by reporting the fraud and discussing my options with Northwest they assured me everything was fine. In fact, they made me feel silly for worrying about my ticket even though I repeatedly explained what had happened to the other students. At the time I would never had expected them to replace my ticket at their loss because of my mistake. Now, however, that I have found out they mislead me months ago, I am repeating the same frantic, time consuming steps of contacting my credit card, talking to Northwest, reporting the fraud that I already took months ago and should have fixed the situation. I do think Northwest is at fault for not be straight forward with the risks of my ticket and allowing me to scramble last minute to find a new one.
    Sorry for the long comment, but again I appreciate everyone’s comments (I promise to not call 911 and go through my local police department!) and at the very least know in the future to be extremely wary (oh ya, this business had a satisfactory rating-until our complaint-on the Better Business Bureau . Trust no one!). Thanks, Jenn

  58. jgodfrey says:

    This is one of Jenn’s tripmates.

    1st) Jenn. You are the absolute best.

    2nd) I’d like to add an interesting factoid we learned from this experience/ get feedback about it:

    Word is that there’s a high concentration of shady business going down in Delaware (where Michelle Shaw and lastminutefare.net were located) on account of the State’s comparatively low tax rates. Is this true?

  59. triple7 says:

    @Jteschle:

    a couple of things: Delta’s merger with Northwest is incomplete so any suggestions to complain to Delta about problems with Northwest are completely pointless. Once the merger is complete Northwest will no longer exist as an independent entity. It will all be called “Delta”.

    Northwest doesn’t fly to Ghana, but Northwest’s SkyTeam partner Delta and KLM can get you there so you may have had a “Northwest Ticket” with Northwest’s codeshare flight numbers for either a Northwest/Delta mixed flight or a NW/KLM mixed flight. It helps to know what airlines you are actually flying and which airline “owns” your ticket. If you ask Delta or KLM to help you with a NW ticket you will be referred to NW (unless it is due to a delay or cancellation).

    Booking travel more than 3 months in advance is completely pointless. Airlines usually change their flight schedules at least 4 times a year and with fuel costs skyrocketing they are doing it even more frequently. The likelihood that you end up with an undesirable itinerary increases the farther out you book your ticket.

    Also, booking way in advance just about guarantees that you will overpay unless you are travelling during a peak period. For example, right now you can book a R/T from SAN to ACC for $2304.83 (july 10-aug 10) on delta.com taxes inclusive. the fare will go down if they don’t start selling out tickets at that fare class.

    As for Northwest, try emphasizing the faulty miscommunication on their part in not explaining how a consolidated ticket could be refunded back to the agent. They should at least give you a voucher or something to cover the difference from the original fare and assist you in locating the agent for prosecution purposes.

  60. bunchref says:

    @Jteschle:

    It is unfortunate that you were scammed. I hope that you will learn a valuable lesson here about trusting people that you meet on the Internet. It is sad that we live in a world where people take advantage of situations and steal from others.

    The FBI has an Internet crime division. I wouldn’t contact the SDPD but call the FBI. They have the resources to track this person down. By taking credit card payments the person has an electronic fingerprint and it is not so easy to disappear after committing these types of crimes.

    I was a little concerned about your comments about Northwest. I have been flying with them for several years and I do not find that they lie about what is in the record. The fact is that the con artist was their customer, not you. That is a fact of life with ticket consolidators. I was a little surprised that the fare you received was not a non-refundable one. But in doing some searches I did find that Delta has the best fares to Accra via New York.

    The best way to deal with any business in a dispute is to document your comments and the comments of the business. Northwest has a method called ‘Talk To Us’ (TTU) that is basically an online e-mail submission form. They will then respond to you via e-mail and you then have a written record. That prevents any kind of ‘he said, she said’ and you can accurately quote the person. Your comments at this point appear to be a synopsis of your recollection of a conversation at a time you were visibly upset.

    One other suggestion. Don’t post your personal information online. I was able to do a search and found your name and phone number and other personal information that you posted there. Please be more careful in the future.