Fraud in the Amazon


Q: My husband and I took my nephew to the Amazon in Brazil last November. We booked all of the hotels and ground transportation through a travel agency in Rio de Janeiro that we had used twice before. We wired a payment covering all charges to the travel agency prior to taking the trip.

We were unhappy with the lodge that we were staying at and telephoned the travel agency’s representative in Rio to see if we could move to a different hotel. She made arrangements directly with the Ariau Lodge for the Ariau Lodge to send a helicopter to pick us up and take us to Ariau and stay for one night, which was the final night of our trip.

She told us that the helicopter ride would cost about $1,000 and that there would be no additional charge for the hotel room. My husband verbally confirmed that she was quoting in local currency, as it is common in Brazil for people to quote in dollars. The agent sent us a fax confirming the arrangements and indicating that we would pay the hotel directly for the helicopter ride. She did not include the price of the helicopter on her fax confirmation.

We had no cause to question the price of the helicopter ride as we had a quote from another air charter service which was roughly in line with the price of other private small plane travel that we had done in Brazil.

When we checked out of the hotel, we were presented with a bill that included a charge of $2,800 for the helicopter ride. We immediately phoned the travel agent representative who had provided the verbal quote and she informed us that she quoted $2,800 – and that this was our problem to resolve.

We discussed the matter with the hotel staff for close to one hour. We proposed to pay what we had originally been quoted and work out the discrepancy with the travel agent who had quoted us in error. But they would not let us leave unless we gave them a credit card.

We finally agreed that they would prepare two charge slips – one for $700 for room charges, an upgrade and other incidentals. And the other for the disputed helicopter ride.

We signed off on the first one.

We were allowed to leave, but the hotel then sent two representatives to the airport who tried to prevent us from checking into our flight and made repeated requests that we sign the other credit card slip. We refused.

Immediately upon return to the United States we telephoned American Express to dispute the charge. In addition, we sent an email to the head of the travel agency in Rio explaining what had happened. We offered to pay the $1,000 through the travel agency. We sent three further emails to follow up and never had a reply.

After receiving our November statement with the $2,742.35, we telephoned American Express to initiate their dispute process. We received a letter dated Dec. 14, asking us to provide documentation of the charge. On Jan. 5 we faxed a letter explaining the circumstances along with the fax from the travel agent that did not contain a price and the fax with the competing air quote.

Sometime in February we received a call from an Amex representative who said that Ariau had produced a signed receipt for the charge. We explained that this was impossible as we had refused to sign the slip.

They faxed us the two charge slips, both of which contained the identical signature. We telephoned American Express and informed them that the signature on the charge slip under dispute had been forged. The representative agreed to look into it.

On Apr. 2, American Express sent us a letter saying that they were reinstating the $2,742.35 charge as Ariau had presented signed sales receipts. “Since the charge is signed and your card was presented, we cannot return the charges to the Merchant,” it said.

I telephoned Amex and was put in touch with a Platinum Account Manager. She said that there is nothing Amex can do because we provided the card to the hotel and are therefore unable to dispute any charges that they make to the card. She said that it was not relevant that the hotel forged our signature as the hotel did not require our signature to process the charges. In addition, it was just my “opinion” that the signature was forged and could not be proved.

Do we have any recourse?

— Julie Sherlock

A: This has got to be one of the oddest cases I’ve ever come across. Not just because it takes place in the Amazon and involves helicopters and hotel employees trying to force you to sign credit-card receipts. But it’s also because – if your story is to be believed – there was fraud and deception on many levels by many parties.

Let me try to untangle this jungle of a case.

First, your travel agent is so fired. She should have offered to fax or e-mail you a quote on the chopper fare. Instead, she gave you a price over the phone (which, between her English and your husband’s Portuguese, was asking for trouble). Then she backpedaled when it came time to settle up.

Here’s the thing: even if the price got lost in the translation, she shouldn’t have shrugged off your billing dispute. After all, she’s taking a commission on your vacation and is supposed to be your advocate, not your adversary.

The hotel was well within its rights to ask for full payment for your stay. But it stepped across the line in two ways: First, by sending its goons to the airport. And second, by not clarifying with American Express that you only signed one of the receipts. By essentially claiming that you signed the second one – and never mind whether they forged your signature – the hotel committed fraud.

But you aren’t completely blameless. You should have asked for a price in writing before accepting your new itinerary. You should have carefully read the form you signed when you checked in – you know, the one in which you agree to pay for any incidentals on it. And you should have called American Express before you returned to the United States to explain what happened.

Odds are, American Express was presented not only with the “signed” credit card slip during the dispute, but also with the slip of paper you signed at check-in agreeing to pay for all charges incurred. Under most circumstances, that would be an open-and-shut case for a charge card dispute.

This isn’t a typical case, though. And not just because I happen to be involved. You are a Platinum card member, meaning you’re entitled to – and I quote directly from the promotional materials – an “unmatched level of personal service and attention.” The implied promise is that the folks at Amex Platinum will look out for you in ways they wouldn’t if you were a garden-variety green cardholder.

After asking American Express to take another look at your case, the company offered you a partial credit, which still left you with about $1,000 extra on your bill. Neither of us was completely happy with that resolution, but it is better than no resolution at all.

Next time you plan a trip, use a reputable travel consultant. Get everything in writing. And tell your credit-card company about any potential problems as soon as they crop up.

The longer you wait, the less of a chance you’ll get things resolved.