Travel Agent Accused of Stealing Nearly $1 Million From Customers, Pleads Guilty and Avoids Jail

Accused of stealing nearly $1 million from her travel agency’s clients, our client pleaded guilty last week in Manhattan Supreme Court to Grand Larceny in the Third Degree and Scheme to Defraud in the First Degree in this highly publicized and emotionally-charged case.  Nevertheless, despite a public outcry from the Chinese community for our client to receive a custodial sentence, we convinced prosecutors that repaying approximately half the allegedly stolen funds to victims would be a better ultimate result for all.  In the end, the best New York criminal attorneys know that keeping your client out of jail when the public is calling for her head is the main goal in any criminal defense.

A Highly Charged Case With Emotional Victims

In August of 2015, our client was arrested and charged with taking money from customers of her Chinatown travel agency for vacation travel to China and then not buying the tickets.  The Manhattan District Attorney claimed in a statement that in some instances, she “charged her victims for round-trip fare but did not purchase tickets at all, instead providing her victims with receipts and itineraries designed to deceive them into believing that they possessed necessary documentation to travel” — leaving them stranded in Asia.  Our client was also alleged to have  used individuals’ credit cards without their authorization or permission to purchase tickets for other travelers who had already paid her for airfare: our client was alleged to have charged more than $60,000 in airline tickets without one cardholder’s permission.

Adding to the difficulty of the case was the presence of a community organization in Chinatown which, while purportedly acting as an advocate for the victims, applied pressure on the DA for a jail sentence for our client.  Suddenly we were hearing from the prosecution that our client had squirreled away millions of dollars of ill-gotten gains, that there were thousands of victims — all false.  This made the prospects of a probationary plea deal very remote, especially when the judge presiding over the case told us at one of our first court appearances that he would not accept a plea bargain with a probationary sentence unless every dollar stolen had been paid back to all victims — approximately $1 million.

A Reasonable Strategy — And a Reasonable Result 

We took an aggressive, proactive approach with all of these accusations by proving that the claims of a hidden financial windfall were false.  We allowed the prosecutors full entry into the client’s financials and invited them to look for hidden funds.  As that false accusation fell by the wayside, the number of victims fell as well, from over a thousand to a few hundred.  We also pointed out that the circumstances in our case were different than in the usual fraud case: the defendant never set out to steal victims’ money.  Instead, a cash flow emergency had arisen due to circumstances beyond her control which triggered the need to take money coming into the travel agency to purchase tickets for customers who had previously paid for them.  This “business model” clearly could not work long-term; the defendant closed her business when the money ran out.

We then proposed what was a fair resolution: to repay the individuals who had lost money but not the victim credit card companies or banks.  This totaled about $500,000.  As we explained additionally, most fraud victims are not paid back.  And even in such cases, even in the most dastardly of fraud cases prosecuted by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in which the victims are not made whole, the defendants can still be largely spared jail time.  The prosecutors agreed and the defendant pleaded guilty to Grand Larceny in the Third Degree and Scheme to Defraud in the First Degree, all while angry victims sat in the courtroom audience.  In exchange for restitution of $500,000 to be made within six months, the defendant will receive five years of probation.

In the end, we achieved what we set out to do: avoid jail for our client.  While the District Attorney issued a press release trumpeting the conviction in this case, he failed to note that our client would not spend a day in jail.  Call the Law Offices of Jeffrey Lichtman at (212) 581-1001 to discuss your case.