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Travel Scam Has at Least 20 Latinos Victims : Tickets: Self-styled Cypress Park agent has vanished, leaving would-be travelers out a total of about $12,000.

December 26, 1991|PHIL SNEIDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Earlier this year, the word spread quickly among Spanish-speaking residents of Northeast Los Angeles that a Cypress Park travel agent was selling low-cost airline tickets for flights to Central and South America.

Police say the agent, who called himself Walter Machado, took full advance payments and deposits in recent months but failed to provide the tickets he promised. On the Monday before Thanksgiving, investigators say, he vanished, leaving behind at least 20 victims who together had lost about $12,000.

On Dec. 13, a warrant was issued for the agent's arrest on a grand theft charge. Investigators say the case brought to light yet another fraud scheme aimed at Spanish-speaking residents.

"This is a new one," said Los Angeles Police Detective Jesse Brown, who was familiar with earlier scams in Northeast neighborhoods involving fake lottery tickets and faith healers.

Although the agency closed abruptly a month ago, new victims of the airline ticket scheme were continuing to contact police last week.

"Many of them were going home for the holidays," Brown said. One family lost as much as $1,700, and some of the bargain hunters ultimately paid twice as much because they had to buy tickets a second time at a legitimate outlet, the investigator said.

Based on his driver's license, the arrest warrant identifies the travel agent as Walter Contreras, 29, who until recently lived in Glendale.

His whereabouts are now a mystery. Just before he and his family disappeared, Brown said, Contreras told a neighbor that he was relocating to El Salvador. But his wife told a friend that the family was moving to Pasadena, and the couple's son told schoolmates that the family's new home would be in Colorado.

Contreras opened his business, Kenwood Travel and Insurance, last March in a storefront in the 1000 block of Cypress Avenue, where he served residents primarily in the area between Mt. Washington and Elysian Park. The building is owned by Benjamin and Eugenia Garcia. Eugenia Garcia operates a beauty parlor next door, and Contreras' wife formerly worked in the shop.

Contreras was self-assured and arrogant and often quoted from the Bible to help build an image as an honest businessman, Benjamin Garcia recalled. "He really acted like a big shot," Garcia said.

The landlord said Contreras owed $750 in back rent when he disappeared. Garcia said that, based on his conversations with people who have sought refunds at the now-closed business, he believes that many others lost money to Contreras but are reluctant to report it to police.

Brown said Contreras apparently sold a few airline tickets initially for less than they cost in order to "sort of salt the area" and attract customers. Then he began to accept money, promising to deliver the tickets within two weeks, the investigator said.

When the two weeks had passed, "many people would call up, and he'd give them a song and dance," Brown said. "They'd call and call and wouldn't find him."

Theft schemes involving low-cost international airline tickets are not uncommon, said Alexander Anolik, a San Francisco attorney who specializes in travel law. He said enforcement of travel agency regulations by state and federal officials is spotty and he urged customers to exercise caution.

"I do not pass the money until I see the ticket in hand because it's so easy to run a $100 ad with an unrealistic price," Anolik said. "If you get a ticket, and it seems too good to be true, you could check with the carrier to make sure it's good."

He also said buyers should be wary if the travel agent refuses to accept a credit card for the purchase. All legitimate agents accept such cards, Anolik said, and a charged transaction can easily be canceled if the tickets are not delivered or are found to be worthless.

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