MEMPHIS, Tenn. – A recent FOX13 investigation exposed a local travel agent owing her customers a significant amount of cash.
That story revealed countless others are being affected by the same issue all throughout the Mid-South.
ORIGINAL STORY: Mid-South travel agent accused of not refunding some customers
Within days of that story airing, every single customer FOX13 Investigator Leah Jordan interviewed told us they got their money back in their hands.
But also within days, nearly half-a-dozen more customers reached out to Leah – telling her they were owed money by the same travel agent.
She spoke with those new victims, as well as the travel agent – then went to legislators to dig into what needs to change in Tennessee.
More customers owed refund cash
Vonna Jones is a customer of Glenda Sprouse-Benson’s. In anticipation of a family cruise, she told FOX13 that she, her daughter, and her mother made monthly payments to Sprouse-Benson for a year.
“She took our money,” Jones said. “I got harassed several times each month, texting or calling, you know. ‘Hey, it’s time for a payment.’ I made a payment of $165 every month, and even more on the last month,” she said.
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Jones said she was in constant communication with Sprouse-Benson – that is, until the cruise line canceled the scheduled cruise dates. She showed FOX13 text messages and screen shots where Sprouse-Benson claimed the money was on its way back in February 2019.
On Tuesday, FOX13 called Sprouse-Benson herself. Sprouse-Benson didn’t give permission to air the phone conversation, but she claimed she had already paid all five people who reached out to us.
However, Jones texted Jordan a receipt showing Glenda Sprouse-Benson paid her $1,700 on Wednesday, March 20. This came after Leah and Sprouse-Benson spoke on the phone March 19.
Jones said Sprouse-Benson still owes her $400 of her refund, and that Sprouse-Benson claims she will pay the remainder next week. Other customers tell FOX13 they’ve either been paid in part or have received no part of their refund at all.
Sprouse-Benson said she would email Jordan proof of payment on Tuesday but has not yet done so.
FOX13 has offered a sit-down interview with Sprouse-Benson and that offer still stands.
How will consumers be protected in the future?
Some lawmakers believe there are a lot of other Tennessee consumers in similar situations – which explains the travel-related legislation currently making its way through the house and senate.
“There are a lot of scenarios. Maybe someone sells a customer a fake airline ticket. Or, maybe the ticket is good, but you get to the hotel and show them the confirmation and they say, ‘No, that’s not accurate.’ Can you imagine?” Senator Majority Leader Jack Johnson said.
Johnson said one of his constituents reached out with a similar story to what Jordan exposed, and at that point, he knew a new tool was needed in state law.
“What’s tragic about it is there was nothing really in state law that would prevent someone from co-mingling money they took from a customer for the purpose of buying travel and co-mingling that with personal funds or business funds,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the bill passed unanimously through the senate, is headed for the house, and could ultimately be signed into law by January 2020.
“I’m sure most all of our travel agents and travel promoters across the state are upstanding and do the right thing. But as we know there are bad apples in every barrel,” he said.
And Jones said one bad apple can ruin the bunch. She told FOX13 she never wants to use a travel agent again after her experience.
“I’d just rather try to do it on my own. If I have to pay extra money to book a cruise or whatever, I’ll do it on my own,” she said.
Johnson said it’s an unfortunate situation all around, because the good travel agents are “negatively impacted by the bad actors.”
“I’ve not had a single person be opposed to it, even existing travel agents,” Johnson said. “It’s a poor reflection on the industry, unfairly so.”
Nancy Crawford, a spokesperson for the mid-south BBB, said data shows Tennessee consumers filed 409 complaints regarding travel agents and agencies over the last three years.
If the bill is signed into law, Johnson said the attorney general will be able to go after people who defraud Tennessee customers regarding travel.
Tips for staying protected now
The BBB and Senator Johnson offered a few tips in the meantime.
First and foremost, they each recommend people do their homework. Be sure to ask for recommendations from people in the community regarding who they’ve used for travel.
Also, if you find a travel agent on your own, ask for references and to speak with previous customers.
Finally, check out the company you’re looking into using on the BBB’s website to verify their rating and accreditation.
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