The owner of a travel agency in New York City’s Chinatown pleaded guilty this week in New York State Supreme Court to fleecing customers of more than $45,000 in bogus airplane tickets and, in some cases, stranding them abroad.
Vivian Cheng, 47, from Queens, bilked mostly elderly members of the Chinese community through her company, Bestway Travel, between February 2014 and May 2015. Cheng was indicted in August for her scheme, which involved selling one-way airline tickets as round-trip fares to her customers. Many of her clients were stranded in China and forced to pay additional fees to return to New York. Part of her scam also included fraudulently charging flights on customers’ credit cards without their knowledge to pay for tickets she then sold to other travelers who paid her cash. She was charged with two counts of third-degree grand larceny and three counts of first-degree scheming to defraud. Each charge carries a minimum of one year in prison.
“Numerous victims in this case paid for round-trip airfare to spend time with their families and loved ones, only to receive one-way tickets from the defendant or, in some cases, no tickets at all,” said Manhattan D.A. Cyrus Vance in a statement. “While the holiday travel season may be drawing to a close, travelers are advised to remain on alert for potential scams.”
This isn’t the first time one of Cheng’s Chinatown travel agencies has left customers in the lurch. Broadview Tours, located in a tiny office down the block from Bestway on Pell Street, suddenly shuttered in May 2015, and bankruptcy records for that company list Cheng as its president. A few years ago Cheng began running a cash-only operation at Broadview Tours, which left her customers out of hundreds of unrecoverable dollars.
“We had more than 400 people register here to complain about losing almost a million dollars from her agency,” says Eddie Chiu, director of the Lin Sing Association, a Chinese-American community organization. He tells the Voice that this is the worst criminal case he has seen in Chinatown, and he remembers having to console many Chinese senior citizens who visited his office after being scammed by Cheng. He adds that some victims didn’t realize they had invalid tickets until they arrived at the airport.
“So many elderly people were crying in my office because they saved money for a few years to finally see their families in China,” says Chiu. “They lost everything. And she just collected their cash and closed the door.”