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O.C. man is charged with travel fraud

Authorities say he arranged bogus religious trips to Cuba.

April 18, 2008|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

An Orange County man posing as a travel agent has been arrested on suspicion of selling more than $160,000 worth of bogus trips to Cuba, authorities said Thursday.

Ralph Adam Rendon, 31, of Santa Ana faces 78 felony charges, including grand theft and embezzlement, in connection with advertising religious excursions for Jewish and Greek Orthodox people to meet members of their faith in Cuba, the state attorney general's office said. Nearly three dozen senior citizens bought the tour packages in 2006.

The victims paid Rendon $1,000 upfront to his business, the USA/AAE Scholarship Foundation, for the fake vacations, the attorney general's office said. Then he would ask for an additional $2,580, but ultimately claimed that the Treasury Department had blocked religious travel to Cuba and canceled the trips. The department does allow humanitarian and religious travel to the country, but told Rendon to stop selling travel packages to the island nation.

The so-called bandit travel agent used the money to pay his rent, lease a new Mercedes-Benz and hire a divorce attorney, officials said; he allegedly ignored the victims' refund demands. "What's most offensive is the fact that this person just took the money and ran off," said Gareth Lacy, a spokesman for the attorney's general's office. "There was no trip. There was no effort to provide a trip. It was a total scam."

People from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Utah and New York responded to ads Rendon placed in religious magazines. Investigators began tracking him in 2006 after receiving complaints; he turned himself in to the court, Orange County sheriff's officials said.

Rendon also has been charged with mishandling consumer funds, trust account violations and theft by false pretenses, and allegedly violated laws that regulate travel agents, including failing to register with the attorney general's office. He was arrested by Orange County sheriff's deputies Tuesday and was released after posting $170,000 bail. If convicted, Rendon could face a maximum sentence of decades in prison, Lacy said.

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susannah.rosenblatt@latimes.com

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