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Agent’s stealing charges cast doubt on TCF phase-out

November 4, 2013 Headline News No Comments Email Email

egtmedia59A once-respected Darwin travel agent has admitted robbing clients of almost AUD 170,000 while she battled acute stress and addiction to gambling on poker machines.

Jennifer Kaye Pfitzner, 57, sat weeping in the dock of the Northern Territory Supreme Court after pleading guilty to all the charges against her, ABC News reported.

At the end of a long-running investigation which generated much publicity in the Northern Territory, Pfitzner pleaded guilty to 11 stealing offences. She pocketed about AUD 168,000 that customers had paid her to book holidays with her Darwin Travelscene agency between August 2010 and June 2012.

The case has raised concerns about what will happen when the Travel Compensation Fund (TCF) is phased out, as scheduled, in the coming year. The Northern Territory was never in the scheme and is the only jurisdiction in Australia that operates without a travel compensation fund. Some observers, notably the consumer group CHOICE, have voiced concerns about what may occur elsewhere when the TCF no longer operates.

The Northern Territory Supreme Court was told last week that Pfitzner keenly pursued business from elderly people and travelled around Darwin spruiking holiday packages at senior citizen events.

One client booked a AUD 7500 dream cruise with Pfitzner and became very worried when the travel agent would not provide booking documentation. The client, who contacted the Northern Territory Police Fraud Squad, eventually had two-thirds of her money returned through the Northern Territory Pensioners and Carers concession scheme – but she is still out of pocket, ABC News reported.

Some of Pfitzner’s customers arrived at the airport to learn to their shock that they had not paid for their tickets, the court heard. Pfitzner had got herself in to financial strife through her gambling addiction after her marriage collapsed.

Of the money stolen, only about AUD 25,000 had been returned to the 11 victims.

Two of the victims, sisters aged 84 and 90, had planned a cruise for what would likely have been their last overseas holiday.

Another victim, Earle Richardson (who was able to get most of his money back) is lobbying politicians to set up a compensation scheme.

“I think after all this we definitely need to have something,” the ABC quoted him as saying. “There are so many elderly people who have been ripped off. It is just not right. The Government is doing nothing, or appears to be doing nothing about it. They really need to step up and do something to prevent it happening in the future.”

Pfitzner will be sentenced at a later date.

The case, and Earle Richardson’s sentiments on the matter, have rekindled travel industry concerns about quite what will replace the TCF – and what will happen if such cases occur elsewhere in Australia.

The Pfitzner case rose to public prominence early in 2012, with reports that police were seeking a Darwin travel agent over the disappearance of a large amount of clients’ money. It was pointed out at that time that the Northern Territory was a particularly bad place for consumers to be stung, as the Travel Compensation Fund (TCF) did not cover the NT. That is still the case today.

The TCF actively monitors the financial security of all licensed travel agents in Australia – except in the Northern Territory. The maverick NT did not join the compensation scheme. The whole of Australia will before long be in a similar position, as agents will no longer be required to be members of the TCF after 30 June 2014. The TCF will then wind down and is due to close in mid to late 2015.

Early last year, Darwin’s Northern Territory News named Pfitzner as the agent police were seeking, describing her as the former chief of Darwin’s Travelscene American Express.

The paper said Pfitzner was believed to be a cruise specialist, listed as a Master in Cruising “making her the only cruise specialist in Darwin with this highly esteemed qualification”.

The paper said Travelscene had refused to compensate victims, stating that the Darwin operation was an independently owned and managed franchise – even though Travelscene American Express was named four times on Pfitzner’s business card.

 

Written by Peter Needham

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