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)