The Supreme Court has ordered that pecuniary penalties of $150,000 be paid by the operators of a former Adelaide-based travel agent for breaches of the Australian Consumer Law which included leaving clients in the lurch at the check in gate in foreign countries.
Consumer and Business Services began legal action against the former operators of Olympia Express Tourist and Travel, Vasilios Koutropoulos and Mary Boufkas, in December 2015, alleging that they engaged in conduct that was misleading and deceptive, made false and misleading representations, and wrongly accepted payment from consumers in connection with the supply of international airline services and other travel products.
The Supreme Court heard that Koutropoulos and Boufkas admitted taking money from consumers and advising consumers that they had confirmed bookings and tickets for international flights, knowing those bookings had not and would not be confirmed.
In several instances, they failed to finalise arrangements for return flights – even as their clients were on holidays overseas and about to return home.
In one instance, a client had to pawn jewellery at less than its value to afford additional hotel expenses in Dubai because they were not able to return home, as return flights had not been booked.
The Court also heard that in some cases, Koutropoulos and Boufkas used false booking reference numbers on itineraries provided to clients, where tickets had not in actual fact been booked.
In addition, it took nearly two years to reimburse one client for flights that had been paid for but that Koutropoulos and Boufkas never booked.
Consumer and Business Services sought penalties for breaches of the Australian Consumer Law, along with compensation for consumers.
The Honourable Justice Stanley said in his judgment that former clients of Olympia Travel had been caused great stress.
“The fact that several consumers were affected while overseas should not be overlooked,” he said.
“These consumers were effectively stranded in foreign countries and had no choice but to (i) rely on the second defendant’s assurances that she would book alternative flights; or (ii) find the funds to arrange alternative flights themselves.”
Commissioner for Consumer Affairs Dini Soulio said the conduct was inexcusable.
“When people pay a travel agent to book flights, they have every reason to expect the agent will live up to their end of the bargain,” he said.
“While this was the action of two individuals, it has the potential to reflect badly on the whole sector – especially given the high level of trust people place in their travel agent.
“The penalties awarded by the Court should serve as a deterrent to other travel agents, and other businesses in whom consumers place their trust, from breaching the Australian Consumer Law.”
Justice Stanley fined Koutropoulos $50,000 and Boufkas $100,000.
He also ordered compensation totalling just over $20,000 be paid to clients who hadn’t yet had their expenses reimbursed.
Justice Stanley also ordered the defendants to, through a scheme of consumer redress, compensate any other consumers who have been affected by their misconduct.
Consumers who have been left out of pocket as a result of the conduct of Ms Boufkas and Mr Koutropoulos should contact Consumer and Business Services on 131 882.