The travel industry is traditionally reluctant to discuss the impact of tragic events on business, but forward bookings are believed to be running at around 20 percent below expected levels.

Johannesburg -

Hundreds of South Africans, most of them expats living in London, have been caught in an e-ticketing scam that has left some stranded in the UK, while others have had to shell out thousands of pounds to come home for Christmas.

Complaints of fraud have been filed against Kim Robbertse, an independent travel agent in Polokwane, who is understood to have offered discounted fares and to have collected millions of rand from consumers.

Paul Swanson, a Capetonian living in London, had to pay £4 700 (about R85 000) for tickets for his family to come to Cape Town last Saturday, after discovering that the British Airways e-tickets for which he had paid Robbertse were not valid. He paid her R18 000 for tickets for two adults and a child.

Swanson’s sister, Nicole, said her extended family had collectively paid about R170 000 to Robbertse for flights.

They had lodged complaints of fraud with the Durbanville police station.

Teunika Carstens, formerly of Brits, was due to arrive in South Africa last night on a Virgin Atlantic flight. However, she discovered this week that her family’s e-tickets were invalid, and that the R25 000 she had paid to Robbertse was apparently not paid over to the airline.

“Tickets are not valid and we will not be flying out tomorrow evening. Heartbreaking for us and those who love us,” reads a post by Carstens on Facebook.

“I keep looking at the Virgin page where it is counting down the time, wishing it is all a bad dream.”

Carstens and the Swansons are among 239 members of a Facebook group called “Action Against KR”.

It was set up this week to facilitate communication between consumers who paid Robbertse for flights, only to find that their bookings were only reservations, or had been cancelled.

Consumers got wind of Robbertse’s offer through an e-mail that went viral earlier this year. The offer was for “open return tickets for the fixed price of R7 500” apiece. Consumers paid in advance – into Robbertse’s personal bank account – to secure the tickets, and were told they could confirm their dates at a later stage.

One of the members of the Facebook group said she had recommended Robbertse because her parents had done business with Robbertse’s mother, who had run a travel agency before she retired.

Late last week, consumers began realising their bookings were not legitimate. When they tried to reach Robbertse they were told by a woman answering her cellphone that she was in a coma following a car accident involving a taxi.

Nicole Swanson, who lives in Cape Town, became suspicious when she could find no record of Robbertse at hospitals in Polokwane or Pretoria. She called the Polokwane Athletics Club, after a Google search showed Robbertse was a member. She spoke to someone who had just seen Robbertse – apparently in perfect health.

A Durbanville consumer, who asked not to be named, phoned Robbertse’s father. Shortly afterwards he got a call from Robbertse, who told him she had run into cash-flow problems and would refund him. He has yet to receive his refund.

Asked to respond earlier this week, Robbertse refused to comment on the alleged accident or the apparent scam.

She said, however, that she was aware that fraud charges had been laid against her in South Africa and in the UK. She added she had been advised by her attorney, Elmarie Bierman, not to speak to the press.

Bierman did not respond to an e-mail request for comment, and there was no response to calls to her landline or her cellphone.

It emerged this week that Robbertse is a saleswoman for a kitchen company in Polokwane. She is not registered with the International Air Transport Association (Iata), yet she made bookings using the ticketing services of registered travel agents.

Stephen Forbes, the spokesman for BA, confirmed yesterday that the airline’s corporate security department had found that Robbertse was not an Iata-registered agent. He said that when the airline was made aware of the issue, her “access to BA’s inventory was revoked”.

“We also informed the travel agency issuing the tickets about the action we had taken.

“We always advise that anyone booking airline tickets do so through ba.com or a recognised Iata-registered agent.”

The travel agency that gave Robbertse use of its ticketing services is Serendipity Tours in Durban.

An e-mail from Donovan Moodley, sales manager for Serendipity, to consumer Alison Wilde states that Serendipity issues tickets on behalf of non-Iata agents – and “currently hosts over 300 (such) members”.

Moodley’s e-mail to Wilde says Serendipity was made aware of Robbertse’s actions a week ago and immediately terminated its ticketing services to her.

Robbertse was advertising a fare of R7 500 valid until December next year.”This airfare was definitely non-existent. We have issued a number of tickets on her behalf ex-London to SA, issued at the current available fares,” he said.

Yesterday Kim van den Berg of Serendipity told the Saturday Star that it was common practice for agencies to issue tickets on behalf of non-IATA agents. Her agency had previously issued approximately 50 valid tickets for Robbertse.

Van den Berg said Serendipity had not issued any fraudulent tickets on behalf of Robbertse.

“An itinerary is just your flight details; the format is similar to that of an eticket, which is why people are assuming they have a ticket. The documentation should read eticket and there should be a valid eticket number, which is 13 digits,” she said.

Consumers like Paul Swanson are angry that the airlines showed their bookings as “confirmed” - they did not know that their tickets had not been paid for.

Lisa van Vlaanderen also has a BA “confirmation number” on her itinerary, which was issued by Travelport and reflects Serendipity as the travel agent. Van Vlaanderen, who is a member of BA's executive club, says when she enters her booking reference into the airline’s online account, it reflects an actual booking.

“But if you click on it, there is no e-ticket attached, yet you have no way of knowing you need to check this. There is no warning that this ticket is not paid for - so the system leads you to believe you have a legitimate ticket,” she said.

Trudie Broekmann, a Cape Town attorney who specialises in consumer law, said the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) gave consumers recourse when a product or service was defective.

“Suppliers - and the CPA provides a broad definition of a supplier - can be held jointly and severally liable for a defective service or product,” she said. Her view was that the agent, travel agency that enabled the agent to issue the defective ticket, and the airlines involved could be held liable for a defective service or product in this case.

A travel industry insider, who asked not to be named, said the travel industry in South Africa was self-regulated. It wasn’t right for a travel agency to allow a non-IATA agent to use its ticketing services, he said.

“Consumers should make sure they know who they are dealing with; verify the agent and agency by checking the detail on their website, and never pay money into an agent's personal bank account. You should only ever pay into a business account. Check that the agent is licensed under a host company, which gives you recourse against the company,” he warned.

Last month the owner of a Club Travel franchise in Gauteng was sentenced to 10 years in prison, without the option of a fine, for fraud and theft of more than R3 million. The fraud was first uncovered in 2011.

- Saturday Star