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Travel Agent to Go on Trial in $300,000 Ticket Fraud

October 29, 1987|STEPHANIE O'NEILL | Times Staff Writer

A former Glendale travel agency operator accused of bilking more than $300,000 from two airlines is to go on trial in Los Angeles Superior Court next week on grand theft charges.

Anoop Bhatia, 31, is charged with two counts of grand theft. He is accused of embezzling more than $235,000 from Western Air Lines and more than $70,000 from United Airlines from June 1 until Sept. 1 last year, said Deputy Dist. Atty. J. Timothy Browne. Bhatia pleaded not guilty in January.

Browne said he will introduce evidence showing that Bhatia issued fraudulent travel orders on credit coupons extended to him by the airlines. Bhatia would later cancel the travel orders and receive cash refunds, Browne said.

A complicated system airlines use for selling tickets through agencies enabled Bhatia to receive refunds on about 30 travel orders averaging $9,000 each, said Detective David O'Connor of the Glendale Police Department.

Bhatia issued the orders for package tours from Argosy Exodus Travel, which he bought from a Glendale couple and a La Crescenta couple in May, 1986, O'Connor said. The agency has since closed.

The two couples have filed a civil lawsuit seeking unspecified damages from Bhatia and the real estate broker who recommended Bhatia as a buyer to them, said their attorney, David Boller.

Audit Turns Up Discrepancies

The alleged discrepancies in Bhatia's operation were eventually discovered in an audit by the Airline Reporting Corp. (ARC), an organization owned and operated by domestic airlines to accredit travel agencies and receive payment for travel orders.

As an ARC-accredited travel agency, Bhatia's company received a supply of blank credit coupons, said Charles Wolff, director of agency audit and fraud prevention for the Washington corporation. Normally, after selling a travel package, the travel agent deposits the customer's payment to an ARC trust account and sends a credit coupon to a tour-packaging company. ARC later debits the account and, based on the reports filed by the travel agency, turns the money over to the respective airlines.

"A trust relationship is developed," Browne said of the ARC credit coupon system. "It's like giving someone your checkbook and trusting them to use it properly."

Bhatia allegedly submitted ARC coupons to a tour-packaging company without depositing a payment into the ARC trust account and without filing reports with ARC, Browne said.

Because of the nature of the system, the tour-packaging company was not expected to confirm that a customer had actually purchased the tickets, Browne said. When Bhatia canceled the orders, the tour-packaging company received a cash refund from the airline and turned the money over to Bhatia without question, Browne said.

Bhatia's attorney did not return telephone calls from The Times.

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