State AGs step in to help on securing refunds amid coronavirus

Tribune Content Agency

WASHINGTON — The fountains of the Bellagio in Las Vegas danced in his head as William DeBlasio, a painter, carpenter and volunteer firefighter from Berlin, Conn., planned a romantic four-day April vacation with his wife, Lynn, to celebrate their 25th anniversary.

Then came the coronavirus.

DeBlasio, 51, tried to get his $1,638 in airline tickets refunded. What he got instead was the runaround from American Airlines, he said.

American Airlines canceled the flight for the second leg of DeBlasio’s trip — from Charlotte to Las Vegas — and gave him a refund, required by U.S. regulations. But it refused to refund DeBlasio’s money for the first leg. For that, the airline offered him a travel voucher, good for a year. DeBlasio wasn’t satisfied.

“I didn’t want to go in the next year,” he said, citing uncertainty stemming from the virus, travel restrictions and his unease with leaving home.

Frustrated by the airline and a few fruitless calls to other politicians, DeBlasio contacted the Connecticut attorney general’s office. He said it only took one call from that office to light a fire under the airline and get his refund. “I just didn’t want to be forced to fly,” he said.

Thousands of would-be travelers are after refunds for trips untaken, resorts unvisited, vacant vacation homes and memberships to closed gyms. Airlines have policies, gyms have agreements and Airbnb rentals have rules, but many of the contracts don’t cover pandemics.

State attorney generals’ offices, consumer advocacy groups and better business organizations are stepping up, but often can’t keep up with the overwhelming demand.

“Any industry or company that holds onto consumers’ money for a service to be provided in the future is experiencing this problem with refunds,” said John Breyault, public policy spokesman for the National Consumers League, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group.

Breyault said the problem is most common with advance ticket purchases for flights, hotel rooms, concerts and sporting events. He said he realizes that many small businesses need the money to stay afloat, but argues that hanging onto money for a service that cannot be provided is not fair. “We think it’s really unconscionable at a time when consumers … are worried about whether they can pay their rent.”

Small-business owners who took deposits for services or rentals have their own financial issues. Jeannette Belliveau, who rents rooms in her Baltimore home through Airbnb, said she refunded the deposits of renters who canceled their trips. Fortunately for her, some renters extended their stays (one renter’s home purchase was delayed, prompting a longer stay), helping her make up some of the lost income.

“My income went to zero,” after all the renters were gone, she said in a telephone interview. She leaned on her savings for a time, then decided to sell the Baltimore home and move to Idaho.

Asked about DeBlasio’s trip, American Airlines responded with an email referring the question to a website about travel alerts. The site includes information on flight changes and rebooking without fees, but nothing about refunds.

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong said in a phone interview that his office is getting hundreds of consumer calls, about price gouging, profiteering, club memberships and travel.

“We’ve been successful in many cases on the travel complaints,” he said, citing DeBlasio’s Las Vegas trip and the refund he procured for a family that laid out about $1,000 for a Sweet 16 party at a hotel. “We have been able to throw an elbow or put a shoulder into it,” he said.

But Tong cautioned that consumers should read all the fine print and the terms for whatever they bought before trying to make a claim.

“Not all tickets and insurances are created equal,” the Democrat said. “Exhaust all remedies, file a complaint, make a claim — and exercise more than the normal amount of patience.”

Tong said many chains or franchises are regulated by corporate rules, and the smaller ones may not be in a position to make refunds and stay in business. On the other hand, he added, they may be willing to negotiate.

In Oregon, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum’s office was able to get a gym chain, 24 Hour Fitness, to suspend automatic monthly payments after April 16, after at least 20 consumers complained that the gym — which closed a month earlier — was still charging its members. But her office was unable to get the company to refund charges that occurred before April 16, Rosenblum said in an interview.

“We helped a lot of consumers, but we’re not (completely) there yet,” said Rosenblum, a Democrat.

Consumers who spend “a little discretionary money on a gym membership, a week (vacation) rental or an airline ticket” deserve a break, she said, “if your club closes or your trip gets canceled or you can’t go to the beach because the towns told you not to go there.”

Her office issued a statement in mid-April urging businesses to help out. “Oregonians have canceled vacations, weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, concerts and sporting events for the sake of their health and the safety of others,” she said in the statement.

“To do their part, Oregon businesses can act responsibly by providing refunds or credits to consumers who will not be able to use their services on the scheduled dates.”

Rosenblum and other attorneys general report that complaints about price-gouging and outright fraud have also ratcheted up during the pandemic. She urged consumers who feel defrauded to reach out to their state’s attorney general.

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, the Democratic co-chairman of the consumer protection committee of the National Association of Attorneys General, said he too is urging businesses to work with their customers and “cut them some slack at this time. People don’t have the income. A business can’t charge a customer for something it can’t provide.”

He said there are two kinds of complaints. In the first, customers can’t do what they want to do because of shutdown orders. “Then you are entitled to a cash refund because you are not getting what you bargained for,” he said.

The situation is more complicated, he said, if a customer is permitted to do something but is unwilling to do so for fear of the virus. In that case, Stein said his office is urging “businesses to work it out in a more thoughtful way, possibly with credits or refunds.”

With vacation season coming up, beach rentals in North Carolina and other coastal states are on the minds of many would-be tourists. Airbnb is urging homeowners to refund deposits on rentals in restricted beach towns.

According to the company website, reservations made before March 14 with a check-in date between March 14 and May 31 may be canceled before check-in. Reservations for after May 31 are not covered by the policy and defer to the host’s regular cancellation policy, whatever that is.

At VBRO, another rental platform, the situation is murkier because the company is not issuing blanket advice, but instead leaving it up to individual owners and renters. On the company website, it says that the company is strongly encouraging owners to refund “at least 50 percent” of the money deposited and that VBRO is refunding its company fee. The company’s position has led to numbers of complaints about the situation, including dozens listed on the Better Business Bureau’s website. Most of the complaints have to do with delayed or uncollected refunds.

The National Consumers League’s Breyault reminded businesses that the COVID-19 emergency is “not going to last forever. Once done, consumers are going to look back and say, ‘What companies worked with me in this period?’ The ones that did will earn repeat business but the ones that didn’t — people will find other places to go.”



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