My sister and I were supposed to leave for a European Study Tour on Monday, Sept. 13, 2010. But this trip did not materialize. Our itinerary supposedly included a visit to Munich, Prague, Krakow, Warsaw and Medjugorje, and to see the ‘Passion Play’ at Oberammergau. Yes, we’re among the hundreds of travelers who have fallen prey to Mr. Francis (Frank) Gonzales DBA: American Academy of Family Medicine travel scam.
BUSINESS NAME: Gonzales, Francis MD - American Academy-Family Mdcn (AAFM)
TELEPHONE NO: (714) 432-7000
ADDRESS: 1525 Mesa Verde Dr E, #203, Costa Mesa, CA 92626
OTHER BUSINESS INFO: Has a travel-related business in the Philippines.
In retrospect, Mr. Gonzales and the American Academy of Family Medicine’s practices were telling signs of a possible travel scam. So my goal is to share some of the lessons that can be learned from this whole experience. I’ll spare you from having to read the details on how we got scammed, but you may be able to glean some of the victim’s story from the following website.
The following are Mr. Gonzales and American Academy of Family Medicine modus operandi and the lesson that can be learned from each.
1) 2 for 1 deal or 50% off.
Lesson: If something sounds too good to be true, then it's too good to be true.
2) AAFM offers these tours and conferences to health care professionals.
Lesson: Itdoesn’t mean that scammers don’t prey on professionals, intelligent and educated individuals. Scammers don’t appeal to intelligence. They appeal to your heart. For example, AAFM uses an event such as the ‘Passion Play’ at Oberammergau that occurs every 10 years to lure their victims
3) You would not be able to use the company website to book on-line. Payment transaction has to be carried out by phone. Mr. Francis (Frank) Gonzales asks that the tour be paid in full by check or credit card and collects the money way in-advance (6 mos. to 18 mos.).
Lesson: This is not the norm with legitimate travel operators, unless stated in the ‘terms and conditions’. Travel operators usually ask for deposit at booking and payment in full within 60-45 days of departure. So demand for travel contract and read the ‘terms and conditions’.
4) Cancellation insurance is supposedly included, but terms of cancellation insurance are not known.
Lesson: Demand for the cancellation insurance policy and understand the terms.
5) The itinerary attached to the receipt only list the names of places to be visited, but the airline names, hotel accommodation and category level are not disclosed.
Lesson: Understand the terms and conditions before making full payment.
6) Mr. Francisco Gonzales, MD and CEO of American Academy of Family Medicine send out the receipt of payment and a hard copy of the itinerary signed by Mr. Gonzales himself.
Lesson: Having an MD affixed to his name does not mean he’s a respectable doctor and trustworthy.
7) Tour participants don’t get updated on the status of the tour 30 days – 1 day prior to the tour date. On the scheduled travel date or 2 days prior, AAFM sends out an email to advice that the travel date has been re-scheduled. AAFM has an answering service, but doesn’t return calls.
Lesson: Demand that your travel documents (airfare, accommodation and itinerary) be sent 30 days prior to the scheduled travel date. Keep a log of your phone calls and save your emails.
8) Emails regarding re-schedule, cancellation come from different mailboxes. For example, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Lesson: A sign of travel scam
9) On the day of the re-scheduled travel date, AAFM will send you an email to let you know that your trip has been cancelled and that you will get your refund plus $500.00 coupon that can be used on your next booking with AAFM.
Lesson: Immediately report Mr. Gonzales to the Better Business Bureau, FTC and California District Attorney – web address: http://ag.ca.gov/travel/complaint.php
I’m sorry to learn that people have recently booked for travel in 2011. If ever that $500.00 coupon materialized, throw it in the garbage. The next time you travel, whether for leisure or study tour, book with a reputable tour company so you know you’ll get what you pay for. Take safety as your primary concern. And travelling with dubious operator like Mr. Gonzales, you could end up injured (thrown out of the bus for voicing out your concern) or sick, suffer a heart attack from having Mr. Gonzales’ equally dubious son as a tour guide.
My sister heard about the Europe Study Tour (which was marketed as a study tour but the itinerary read like a pilgrimage tour) from a friend who had been on Mr. Gonzales’ 2 study tours. My sister was more interested on the ‘pilgrimage’ side of the tour. She booked us on this tour because she did not want to miss out seeing the ‘Passion Play’ at Oberammergau – an event that occurs once every 10 years. I, on the other hand, was more interested on the ‘study tour’ part. I was curious why AAFM described the visit to each pilgrimage site on the itinerary a ‘symposium’. When I asked my sister why she had to pay the full amount as early as February of 2009, she said that Mr. Gonzales was demanding the payment as he, Mr. Gonzales, was leaving for Europe the next day to make the hotel reservations and travel arrangement. Nevertheless, I questioned the legitimacy of the travel offer that I did a Google search on Mr. Gonzales and American Academy but found no negative reviews.
From a personal level, I learned three things from this experience. First, I've been reminded of the proverb,“Curiosity killed the cat”. Second, I learned to be more aware of the telling signs of a possible scam or illegal activity. Finally and most importantly, I learned that I can really effect change by not being embarrassed to say that I fall prey to scumbag Gonzales, and share my voice to stop this man from victimizing others. On that note, let's use the power of the internet to expose Mr. Gonzales' illegal activity and stop him and AAFM from scamming more travelers. So please share your negative travel experience and post your reviews in Yahoo, Yelp and other internet sites. You may also post a comment below.