This Article is From Dec 25, 2019

US Travel Agent Scammed New Victims To Pay Old Ones, Prosecutors Say

After more than a dozen victims aired their grievances during Lorena Balbuena Aguilar's sentencing in November 2017, a judge ordered her to pay more than $33,000 in restitution.

US Travel Agent Scammed New Victims To Pay Old Ones, Prosecutors Say

For many, promises of airline bookings made but unkept, cost them thousands and upended Christmas plans.

One by one, victims of the Maryland travel agent told the judge how they had been duped. Some paid thousands for tickets through the agent but could not board a plane when they arrived at the airport. Others successfully made it to their destinations, only to find they were stuck because the agent had not purchased return flights.

For many, the promises of airline reservations made but unkept, cost them thousands and upended Christmas travel plans.

After more than a dozen victims aired their grievances during Lorena Balbuena Aguilar's sentencing in November 2017, a judge ordered her to pay more than $33,000 in restitution. Aguilar, who earlier spent three weeks in jail and 15 weeks in home detention, could have been ordered deported. But she was allowed to stay in the United States and avoid additional jail time to pay back her 22 victims.

"You hurt all of these people by what you did," Prince George's Circuit Court Judge William Snoddy told her at her previous sentencing. "It is only because you have promised to pay them back that you are not suffering consequences greater than those which you are facing."

Two years after being sentenced in her first fraud case, Aguilar is due in court again in February to face trial on a new theft charge in which she has pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors have accused her of violating her probation by defrauding more people in a sort of pyramid scheme that scammed new victims to pay off old ones.

"This pattern continues," prosecutors with the Prince George's County State's Attorney's Office wrote in court filings asking that her probation be revoked. "The defendant has continued to engage in criminal acts even while on probation in this case and even when she knows that she faces the possibility of incarceration if she violates the law. She has made efforts to hide her identity and her activities, but she has not stopped victimizing people."

Police found at least 10 new victims since Aguilar was first sentenced, according to charging documents.

A public defender for Aguilar declined to comment. Phone numbers that appeared connected to her travel agency or were listed in court documents were not in service.

Aguilar did not speak at her 2017 sentencing hearing, and neither she nor her attorney apologized to the victims, according to a court transcript of the hearing.

Aguilar has defrauded customers since at least 2015, according to court documents. Many of Aguilar's victims, all Latino, said during her sentencing that they had successfully purchased travel arrangements through her Hyattsville-based agency, listed as Azteka Travel & Services LLC in court filings, before they were eventually scammed. She either promised to make bookings but never did, prosecutors said, or used the credit card numbers of customers to make unauthorized purchases.

Jose Francisco Reyes Carino said he had purchased five tickets for his family to travel to Mexico. Getting a flight out was no problem, but when it was time to come home, they were stranded, Carino said in court.

Carino had to pay for a hotel and food for three days until Aguilar finally booked them a return flight, he said at her sentencing hearing. Carino said he was embarrassed because his children kept asking why they were not going home and he had to tell them he did not have enough money.

Claudia Guevara had a similar experience in 2016, she testified. Her children and their two cousins could not get on a plane to spend Christmas with family in Mexico during a trip that they had booked through Aguilar's agency. Guevara called Aguilar from the airport and threatened legal action if she did not pay for the flights as promised. The children eventually made a later flight, but Aguilar had paid only for one-way tickets, Guevara told the judge during Aguilar's sentencing.

"On their way back, they were stuck in Mexico," Guevara said. "We ended up paying another $2,000 for the kids to fly out."

After losing thousands of dollars to Aguilar, Guevara, 30, searched online and discovered other Azteka customers who complained of similar problems. Guevara said many victims who spoke to her were undocumented immigrants afraid to report the fraud to police. Guevara, who was born in the United States, went go to law enforcement on their behalf.

Victims who came forward at Aguilar's sentencing also claimed that she was still selling tickets to customers at a different travel agency.

Another victim, Alicia Arriaga, said at the 2017 sentencing that she had been waiting a year and three months for Aguilar to repay her. Arriaga said she needed the money to visit her sick mother in Mexico the following month.

"You are letting her sell tickets at a different agency," Arriaga alleged. "That's illegal."

"I don't have anything to do with that," the judge said.

Before Snoddy sentenced Aguilar, following an agreement developed by prosecutors and her attorney, he addressed the victims in court.

"The sentence is what it is in order that you may be made whole by Ms. Aguilar's actions," Snoddy said. "That if she were deported, the likelihood of any or all of you receiving your money back would be less and in all likelihood that you probably would not be getting restitution."

If Aguilar is convicted again, Guevara hopes she gets a stiffer sentence.

"It would be best for her to spend more time in jail," Guevara said. "Unless she's in jail, she's never going to stop. "