|By Paula Dobbyn, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jun. 2, 2005 - Two years after an Anchorage tour company went bankrupt amid a credit card scandal that landed its owner a federal prison sentence, an Internet travel scam is again targeting Alaska, according to the Better Business Bureau.
A company with slick Web sites, including goalaska.com, nltours.com and travelalaska.net, sells vacation packages, hotel rooms, RV and car rentals and other tourist amenities then stiffs customers and the Alaska businesses that provide the services. That's according to the BBB in Anchorage, which issued a consumer alert on Wednesday.
The company, which also targets western Canada, is not new to Alaska.
Three years ago, the state attorney general's office went after Heinz Schulz, thought to be the ringleader. The state brought a 30-count civil complaint against Schulz and his businesses for engaging in unfair and deceptive trade practices, false advertising and other violations of consumer protection laws.
After Schulz failed to respond, the state won a default judgment against him for $149,474, court papers show.
Canadian authorities issued cease-and-desist orders last year, telling Schulz and his cohorts to refrain from operating as a travel company and to repay those who lost money, according to Better Business Bureau spokesman Jeremy Zidek.
Schulz did not comply with the Canadian or Alaska orders and his whereabouts are not known, Zidek said. Schulz, who lived in Anchorage for a time, has a telephone number and bank account in Germany and speaks with what sounds like a German accent, he said. It would be tough to arrest Schulz, Zidek added.
"Because they're operating abroad and using multiple (computer) servers, it's hard for authorities to track them down. About the only thing we can do is alert people not to fall prey," Zidek said.
Schulz advertises his businesses under many names. Among them are Northern Lights Alaska & Canada Tours, Northern Lights Tours, Canada and Alaska Tours Ltd, Alaska Canada Tours and Canada Tours, according to the state's 2002 civil case.
The Web sites for the businesses are professional-looking, which makes it easy for unsuspecting customers to get lured in, said Zidek and Alaska business owners familiar with how the businesses are run. The address of one of the Web sites, travelalaska.net, is practically the same as the official site of the Alaska Travel Industry Association: travelalaska.com.
"It's as close to travelalaska.com as you can get. It's unfortunate," said Ron Peck, executive director of the travel association.
Craig Floyd, vice president and co-owner of the Thrifty car rental franchise in Alaska, said his company lost a couple thousand dollars to the scheme. He had customers show up with vouchers for rental cars they had paid for in advance. But Floyd couldn't honor them because he knew Schulz' companies wouldn't pay the bills.
Sometimes when a customer showed up with a voucher, the person at the desk would call the travel company. They would be given what turned out to be a phony credit card number. Floyd found the experience heart-wrenching, especially for elderly people who had saved up for a trip of a lifetime.
"I hear many people say, 'Before I die, I want to come to Alaska.' For those people to get ripped off, it's criminal," Floyd said.
Brenda Hewitt, vice president of marketing for Chena Hot Springs Resort, said Schulz' operatives ripped off her Fairbanks company for about $4,200 over the last few years. They used different company names so it was hard to tell it was the same people, Hewitt said.
Sometimes the company gave credit card numbers that didn't work. Other times they paid for services with checks that bounced, she said.
This latest consumer alert is eerily familiar to Alaska travel industry players tarnished by the Ask Alaska Travel & Tours fiasco of 2003. The former Anchorage company went bankrupt at the height of the tourist season. Owner Jennifer Christensen was found to be misusing customer credit cards and pleaded guilty to wire fraud.
Christensen left Alaska on Monday to head to federal prison in Dublin, Calif, according to Anchorage police. She was recently sentenced to two years.
"Everyone in the industry gets a black eye," Floyd said.
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Copyright (c) 2005, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska
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