Woman acted as travel agent, siphoned nearly $35,000 from customers

The Singapore State Courts. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)
The Singapore State Courts. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE — A woman who pretended to be a travel agent would lie to her clients by claiming that her mother was hospitalised or in an intensive care unit (ICU) for being unable to proceed with the travel plans she supposedly made for them.

S Leelavadi, 55, would seek her clients' agreement to postpone or refund their trips, but would then disappear with the monies she was entrusted with for bookings.

The Singaporean, who did not have a valid travel agent’s license at the time, was sentenced to 20 weeks' jail on Tuesday (10 August). She plans to appeal against her sentence.

She pleaded guilty to two counts under the Travel Agents Act and one count of criminal breach of trust, while another seven counts of a similar nature were considered for her sentencing.

Worked without travel agent license

In 2000, Leelavadi started work as a freelance travel agent. In 2004, she worked for a licensed travel agent handling tour package bookings but left within nine months. She continued freelancing after that.

She would tell the customers that she could make bookings for tours to India and Dubai and advised them on the mode of travel, the accommodation and itinerary of the tour destination. She would then give them a quotation.

Customers who confirmed the tour were required to make a deposit payment of $500, which Leelavadi claimed she needed to make relevant bookings for their tours.

In the months before the departure dates of tours, she would chase her customers for the balance payment. She would then send her customers travel itineraries and advise them on aspects of their trips from insurance, currency exchange to local tours, leading her customers to believe that she was a legitimate travel agent.

Between 2013 and 2017, eight victims entrusted their money to Leelavadi for the purpose of tour bookings. However, Leelavadi misappropriated the monies for her own expenses. She did not make any bookings. Near to the planned travel dates, she would lie to her customers that her mother was hospitalised or in an ICU, and seek their understanding to postpone their trips or have them refunded.

When her customers pressed her for the flight tickets so that they could travel to India or Dubai on their own, Leelavadi was unable to provide them the flight tickets. She scammed a total of $34,950 from her victims, with 19 trips unfulfilled.

One of the victims was an 82-year-old woman who agreed to pay $2,400 to Leelavadi for the latter to make bookings for her tour to India around February 2017. The elderly woman had medical issues but Leelavadi assured the victim that she would take care of her. Leelavadi claimed that the elderly woman was the same age as her mother.

When February 2017 came around, the elderly victim packed her luggage and waited for Leelavadi to pick her up to go to the airport. However, Leelavadi did not turn up and did not answer any calls made to her phone.

Two days after the planned date, Leelavadi returned the calls, claiming her mother was hospitalised and that the trip had to be cancelled. She was unable to show any proof that she had booked flight tickets for the victim’s trip.

Leelavadi made full restitution as of 3 June last year.

The prosecution sought at least five months' jail for Leelavadi, saying that she had abused the trust of multiple victims with the same modus operandi.

The prosecution noted that Leelavadi had originally pleaded guilty on 30 March last year before retracting her plea in June and going to trial. The trial dates were fixed before she pleaded guilty again at the "doorstep" of the trial, said the prosecution.

Leelavadi had only made restitution of $300 in 2017 and restituted the remaining amount only on 3 June last year.

Client an avid traveller with extensive contacts: lawyers

Her lawyers Kalidass Murugaiyan and Ashvin Hariharan said that their client had to raise funds to make restitution. She did so "not for the sole purpose of an expectation of a lighter punishment, but due to her genuine remorse for her actions and her desire to ensure that the victims were not out of pocket given her actions," said the lawyers.

The lawyers described their client as an "avid and experienced traveller" who had a network of contacts to assist in arranging tours and travels.

She had initially only offered to assist arranging trips for friends and family members, who began to invite their own friends to seek her services.

Leelavadi had not profited from these trips and never held herself out to be a travel agent.

Unfortunately, Leelavadi herself had been cheated of her monies by an Indian agent who disappeared with her monies, the lawyers said.

Leelavadi then used funds that were meant for a victim's planned trip to Dubai to pay for the trip she was cheated of, they added.

The lawyers asked for a jail term of not more than three-and-a-half months for the criminal breach of trust offence, and a total fine of not more than $4,000 for the Travel Agents Act charges.

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