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The Tourist Agency and Disputing Charges

INDIA | Friday, 15 May 2009 | Views [509]

So, the letters below that we sent to our respective banking and credit institutions, will mostly outline the scam and what we went through.  rather than type everything out again, i figured the letters would suffice and save me some time.  The scam, the surveiling, the angst and feeling unsafe, the dealing with increasingly hostile staffers while we were also beholden to them for protection defined the 3 days we were in Srinagar, despite there being real beauty to behold and some down time with other travelers that was a lot less fear ridden. 

These tourist agency guys were real sleezy and would say anything and admit to nothing.  I mean real sleezy.  THis guy Nazir, it became clear, loved to prey on the women his agency brought to Kashmir.  He would come by the house boats in the evening, provide beer for the guests and presumably get drunk himself.  He was all puppy dogs and iced cream to the majority of his captors, creating the illusion that he was their friend, there to help, to guide and that he was a resource.  This was all a facade, but it definitely worked on some people.  And I cant blame them.  I made decisions there that I would never make otherwise.  The stress one feels when isolated and out of ones element is real.  This sort of stress can influence your decision making significantly, and, evidently, it did for a few women.  I overheard the staff bragging about the women they've hooked up with.  They men were allegedly married and supposed to be devout Muslims, yet they drank and committed adultery. 

Each morning, we awoke to find ourselves locked into the house boat.  this only added to our suspicions of the tourist agency people and increased our resolve to leave asap. It became clear early on that Alex and I were 'troublemakers' from their perspective.  For whatever reason, the other visitors hadnt really aired their grievances with each other; they hadnt really connected, or shared experiences.  Everyone there had been scammed.  Alex and I bridged these gaps and forged these connections.  we got people talking. dissent grew.  the staff noticed this and new it was Alex and I who were responsible.  Only after a day, we were treated differently.  For instance, my breakfasts were less well cooked and less elaborate.  We were not offered 'free' beer.  the staff was less responsive to us, but also creepily omnipresent whenever we walked from one boat to the other, outside or anywhere.  It became clear that we were being spied on.  The owner, Nazir, began to use more methods of coercion, like calling us out in front of the group.  His attitude changed drastically, though he kept a friendlish facade.  I could see through this easily.  The disdain he had for me grew and i could sense it easily.  From my point, my dislike for him was hardly a secret.  Though, i had to keep everything civil, and as friendly as possible.  I did not know the guy or really what he was capable of. I needed him to get us out of there as well.

It turns out, though, that he's essentially a coward and a cry baby.  He was so enraged when I explained to him over the phone when safely in Dharamsala, that we were leaving, that we had consulted with lawyers and our creditors, and that we would be requesting a refund.  He called the hotel staff where we were staying and had them put me on the phone. i hung up on him and he kept calling back. he called 10 times or more.  The threats he made against me ranged from karmic to physical violence. Essentially, he was throwing a tantrum.  I found it humerous, but also disconcerting.  We were pretty far away, but I didnt know how things worked in India. Perhaps he has thugs around that would try to intimidate me or rough me up.  How mafia-esc was his opperation?

We left the hotel (which was connected to the tourist agency) in quite a bit of panic. for the first 50 yards someone followed us until i ducked down an alley and through a store as an evasion tactic.  We hailed a cab, pretended to get in, then left it abruptly.  We waited in an obscured spot for a few minutes, than made our way to a guest house we had explored earlier.  We were a bit shaken so I called my friend Eisha in Delhi to see if there was anything she could do for us and also to see if she had heard of any scams like this turning violent.  It seemed we had been a bit panicked, but I dont think we were wrong to be scared based on the information we had.

Things settled down at the new place, though I was still wary of being followed.  We ran into some new yorkers there, one who I had played little league baseball with (random) and so their words and presence helped soothe us.

We are currently still dealing with the CC company and we are not sure if we will win the dispute and get our money back.  Here are the letters we sent out:

Essentially, I was a victim of a "bait-and-switch" scam.  I would just like to reiterate the conditions of my case. 

 
Unfortunately, my boyfriend and I were misinformed and lied to, about what and from whom we were purchasing.  We were brought to a tourist agency by random street operatives under the pretext of being taken to a government tourist office where we could obtain free maps and travel advice.  Under the guise of a government bureau, the tourist agency took advantage of us and sent us to Srinagar, Kashmir to a houseboat hotel that they owned and operated.  The agent told us we were purchasing (in a separate and previous purchase that which my boyfriend is also disputing)  a package trip to Daksum (Dacsum) in Northern India (not Kashmir).  A copy of said dispute email is attached to the bottom of this email.  I was given my ticket the next day on the way to the airport, so I did not have time nor the ability to double check the flight destination.  The timing of this made it very difficult to turn around and cancel the trip.  Besides, we were under the mindset that we should trust these people, these "govt officials".  Mid flight, while looking at the journey progress map, I realized that we were actually headed to Kashmir.  At that point there was nothing to be done.

Upon arrival, it was clearly not safe.  There was an extraordinarily strong military presence in the city and we were instructed to tell anyone who might ask that we were from Canada, rather than the USA.  None of the things that we were supposed to have been provided or that were supposed to have been going on actually were (please see attached email for further information regarding these points).   We requested to leave soon after arriving (a fact that the owner will surely dispute), but were told we could not leave for at least a few days.  We were not permitted to leave the house boat without an escort.  Presumably, the reason for this was to keep an eye on us - restrict our movement and freedom - but also because it was unsafe to be in a predominantly Muslim community with serious anti-American sentiment.  Essentially, we were held captive and coerced into spending more money.  Before we had eaten and were given a chance to speak with or connect to anyone outside of their control, we were accosted by the owner and operator, a man named Nazir, who pushed another travel package on us.  He was polite and inviting as one would expect, but it was clear that we had no power in this place.   When discussing the package, the owner responded sharply and decisively to prevent us from buying less, negotiating or asking enlightening questions.  Furthermore, he downright bullied us with cleverly disguised threats and enticements; he held out carrots, but clearly brandished a stick.
 
In order to leave, we felt as though we had to make whatever purchase that was recommended to us. Once away from their influence, we planned on canceling and going our own way.  We did not feel safe openly defying the people responsible for bringing us to a location that which we were not prepared to visit, the people that lied to us but who were also responsible for our safety and well being.  They had us isolated, with no access to Internet or a phone.  In fact, I requested Internet access immediately and my request was rebuffed.   They did, however, after I made the purchase, permit me to call my mother for mother's day.   Despite this seemingly friendly gesture, they did not allow me any privacy.  I did not feel comfortable criticizing the agency and requesting help in front of them.   In addition, we were constantly being surveiled when outside of our room by the owners workers.  Even in our room, we were routinely interrupted with puposeless intrusions and requests. The workers acted as spies and relayed any information they could to their boss, Nazir. 
 
As mentioned, I could not dispute the charge until leaving Kashmir.  Once away from their direct influence and out of their control, my boyfriend called repeatedly attempting to cancel.  When he finally reached Nazir, the man screamed at my boyfriend and would not entertain a cancellation discussion.  Nevertheless, we decided to leave the tour with or without his 'permission' as we did not feel safe.  Immediately after the call to the boss, we made a few other calls to our parents and to family friends for legal advice.  During this time, the boss called the hotel and instructed one of its staffers to stand outside of our phone both and eavesdrop.  This only added to our sense of urgency to get away from these people.  The next day, we filed a dispute verbally over the phone with an American Express fraud department representative.  Following that discussion, as advised, my boyfried attempted to solve the matter with the agency.  Again, he was screamed at, but this time the yelling took on a more aggressive form; he was repeatedly threatened and intimidated, with legal and financial action as well as physical harm.  The hotel staff was instructed to not permit us to leave so that Nazir could continue to call and verbally abuse us.
 
It is because of these conditions and stresses put on us to purchase something unwanted that I would like to dispute and reverse this charge.  We were harrassed and threatened and fearful for our safety.  In addition, every attempt was made to cancel peacefully and responsibly; we returned all of the travel vouchers given to us and called the agency repeatedly.  We were met with increasingly harsh responses, including threats.

Thank you in advance for your help and consideration.  I look forward to your reply and await further instruction.

Yours Sincerely,

Alexandra M. Kislevitz
 
 
The following is the email of dispute that my boyfriend has filed with his creditor:
 
re: PURCHASE MADE ON 05/09/09 AT CENTER TOUR & TRAVELS

Dear Fraud Department Representative,

Greetings and thank you for receiving my charge dispute.

I am writing to dispute a recent charge to my account as I was the victim of a "bait-and-switch" scam.  Unfortunately, I was misinformed, essentially lied to, about what and from whom I was purchasing. The agency represented itself as an arm of the Indian Government Tourist Bureau, whose mission it was to encourage and facilitate safe travel to northern India.  The agency went out of the way to validate it's credentials, claiming to be non profit, showing me fake credentials and fraudulent documents.  The scam was serious and very well rehearsed. 

Concerning what I purchased.  I was told I was purchasing an all inclusive package to the location Daksum (Dacsum) in Northern India, where I would be staying on a pristine lake in the mountains in a house boat.  The package was to include 4 days, inclusive of an overnight camping trek.  It was important to sign up quickly because I was told there was a festival going on and that the Dali Lama would be there to speak.  I was put on the phone with people posing as current guests as well as someone posing as a Jet Airways travel agent in order to assure me that the location was safe and that the cost of the flight legitimate.  Neither turned out to be true.  I was given my airport ticket the next day on the way to the airport, so I did not have time nor the ability to double check the flight destination.  The timing of this made it very difficult to turn around and cancel the trip.  Besides, we were under the mindset that we should trust these people, these "govt officials".  Mid flight, while looking at the journey progress map, I realized that we were actually headed to Kashmir.  At that point there was nothing to be done.

Once we arrived we were picked up and whisked away quickly.  It did not appear to be safe.  There was an extraordinarily strong military presence in the city and we were instructed to tell anyone who might ask that we were from Canada, rather than the USA.  As per the receipt I can send, I had paid for a trek and 4 nights.  As per the agent's words, we were to be in Daksum on a pristine lake.  Instead, we were housed on a putrid lake in a dingy houseboat in an unsafe environment.  There was no festival.  There was no Dali Lama.  Once there, we were informed that we had to pay extra for a trek.  We requested to leave soon after arriving, but were told we could not leave for at least a few days.  Essentially, we were held captive and coerced into spending more money.  We were not permitted to leave the house boat without an escort.  Presumably, the reason for this was to keep an eye on us - restrict our movement and freedom - but also because it was unsafe to be in a predominantly Muslim community with serious anti-American sentiment.

In addition to being lied to, we were not even provided the service promised and paid for.  I could not dispute the charge until now, as we are now far enough away from the agency's influence to take the appropriate actions without feeling threatened (In order to leave we were essentially obligated in no uncertain terms, though not explicitly, to buy another tour package through the agency, a charge my girlfriend is disputing with her card company as well).  I would like to reverse the charges to my card and take whatever action possible against the agency.  I hope you can help me with this endeavor.

Thank you in advance for your help and consideration.  I look forward to your reply and await further instruction.

Yours Sincerely,

Andrew H. Sullivan

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