The number of alleged holiday fraud cases being probed by detectives investigating the dealings of a glamorous travel agent has soared to more than 100, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
As Kathy Ward — the convicted thief who owns La Mon Travel Agency in Downpatrick, Co Down — remains in hiding, the true scale of her suspected illegal dealings, which left hundreds of people without a holiday, stranded at airports, or thousands of pounds out of pocket, is beginning to unravel.
Due to the escalating scale of the alleged scam a special incident room was set up in Downpatrick on Saturday where detectives took statements from victims in relation to 97 separate cases.
This comes just weeks after dozens of clients complained to police that their holidays had not been paid for or that unauthorised money had been taken from their bank accounts. Families and individuals from right across Co Down have been affected.
A number of the individuals came forward at the weekend after reading a previous report in this paper into La Mon Travel Agency last month. When officers launched their initial investigation into the former air hostess’s business dealings they had not expected such a widespread level of suspected fraud.
It is now thought that the travel agency’s alleged illegal operations could run into hundreds of thousands of pounds.
La Mon Travel Agency was thrown out of ABTA, the professional body representing UK travel agencies, last month after police launched their investigation.
The travel agency was only granted membership of the body in January, but the Belfast Telegraph learned that it was using documentation that suggested it was ABTA protected months before it was a member.
Stephen and Caroline Armstrong from Downpatrick paid a £1,200 deposit to La Mon Travel last September for a holiday to Orlando in July. A small notice at the bottom of their booking form read: “This is an important document. You should retain this as you will need it if you need to make a claim under ABTA’s financial protection scheme or any other scheme.”
The family holiday was never booked by La Mon Travel and they have lost their deposit. Caroline said that on reading the notice at the bottom of the form they thought they would have been able to make a claim through ABTA but because the agency was not a member at the time they will not receive any compensation.
Others affected by the travel agency’s dealings are:
- A honeymoon couple stranded in New York when cruise, flights and hotels were not paid for
- A group of 22 people left stranded in New York after their Caribbean cruise was not paid for
- Six friends who have had to cancel their Spanish holiday after their flights and accommodation was not booked
A PSNI spokeswoman said last night: “Police carrying out an investigation in relation to a travel agents in the Downpatrick area recorded a number of statements over the weekend. The investigation continues and a female is assisting police with their inquiries.”
If you have been affected, please contact Deborah McAleese on 02890 264440 or email email@example.com
Travel agent with expensive tastes and history of dishonesty
Glamorous divorcee Kathy Ward is known for enjoying the finer and more expensive things in life.
She would often boast to clients about her luxury holidays and lavish tastes in diamonds and designer shoes.
The former air hostess has a history of dishonesty.
In November 2007, she pleaded guilty at Downpatrick Crown Court to 14 counts of false accounting and theft between 2005 and 2006.
The charges related to more than £2,000. The offences were carried out while Ward worked as a manager at Downe Travel in Downpatrick. The court was told that computer entries were altered to show that money had been paid when it had not and money was moved between accounts to try and rectify balances.
Ward received a 12-month conditional discharge after her solicitor told the court that the offences were carried out during a time when she was depressed.
The blonde Newcastle woman is currently in hiding.
‘A lot of money lost’
Holiday is costing us more: Stephen and Caroline Armstrong, with their children Eoin (11) and Kate (5), say they were let down by La Mon TravelMark Pearce/PresseyeIT was supposed to be a dream family holiday for Stephen and Caroline Armstrong and their two children.
Last September, the Downpatrick family paid a £1,200 deposit to La Mon Travel for a trip to Orlando on July 26, only to discover last month that nothing had been booked or paid for.
At the time of booking they received a booking form from the travel agency which stated at the bottom that the documentation should be retained “as you will need it if you need to make a claim under ABTA’s financial protection scheme or any other scheme” — even though the travel agency was not a member of ABTA at the time.
”Our son is finishing primary school this year and we told him we would all go on a big holiday before he goes into first year.
“I didn’t know anything was wrong until a work colleague happened to mention that police were investigating the travel agency.
“This was a lot of money to lose. Think of all the other things you could have put that money into.
“We couldn’t disappoint the children so we rebooked but prices had gone up so it is costing us more.”
The Broome family had saved for several years for a holiday of a lifetime with their three young children in Disney World, Florida.
Pauline Broome said she was “devastated” when she discovered that the holiday with her husband, her children — aged four, six and nine — and her parents, who were going as a treat to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary, had not been paid for.
She said they paid £5,500 to La Mon Travel last September for their flights and accommodation, but the agency never made the bookings.
“We have been saving up for a couple of years to take the children. There was a lot of hype about it all. We told them maybe Santa wouldn’t be bringing them as many presents this year because they were going to Disney World,” Pauline said.
She added: “We didn’t discover anything was wrong until we heard in the media that police were investigating.
”For a couple of days it was like a numbness. It was devastating. We decided not to tell the children. We have ended up rebooking online. We had to pay a lot more money.”
‘We can’t go on holiday now’
Billy Marshall and his wife Shirley from Killyleagh had been saving hard so they could treat themselves to a week relaxing in the sun in Salou in May and two weeks in Tenerife in August - but their holiday dreams have been ruined.
Last September, the couple paid a deposit of £1,565 to La Mon Travel for both of their breaks.
No bookings were ever made and the couple have lost all their money.
“We can’t go on holiday now. We had saved up for that and it is gone,” Billy said.
“It is not so much for me, Shirley, my wife, is really disappointed.”
In another twist, Billy said that shortly after he had paid his deposit, £2,000 was taken out of his credit card. It was eventually paid back.
‘I could end up paying £900 for a £450 weekend break’
Ardglass man Jim Keenan’s weekend break in Amsterdam with his two friends, booked through La Mon Travel, went without a hitch — until they arrived home.
Jim said he had paid £450 for his recent trip but when he arrived home he discovered the money had been taken out of his account again. And he said one of his travelling companions discovered that £4,000 had been taken from his.
After contacting La Mon Travel his friend finally got £3,000 of the money back, but has still not received the remaining £1,018. Jim said his credit card company |repaid the £450 but have since contacted him saying they may take it from him again as their records show that La Mon Travel is still operating.
“I don’t know what is going to happen over my £450 as my credit card company said they are going to take it off me because La Mon Travel is still operating,” Jim said.
He added: “It looks like I could end up paying over £900 for a weekend break that was supposed to be £450. I am not as bad off as my friend Peter. When he saw the £4,000 taken out of his account he went into see her (Ward) and she tried to blame it on some wee girl working there.”
‘Money is gone’
Downpatrick girl Aisling McKee and her five friends were due to fly to Santa Ponsa for a sunshine break on June 29. The teenagers paid a deposit of £410 to La Mon Travel in November, but have now lost their money and are unable to go on holiday.
“We are all really disappointed. We won’t be going away now. The first we heard about what happened was when we heard about it in the news,” Aisling said.
“We contacted the police and they told us to come down and make a statement and bring our documents.
“The money is gone. We won’t be getting it back.”