3-Year-Old Cruise Passengers Seek Cancellation Fraud Charges

3-Year-Old Cruise Passengers Seek Cancellation Fraud Charges

By now, they were supposed to be on the first leg of the three-year Life at Sea cruise, sailing from Ushuaia, Argentina, to Punta Arenas in Chilean Patagonia.

Instead, more than a month after the cruise was abruptly cancelled, a couple is stranded in an Istanbul hotel and on the verge of homelessness; another woman moved to Ecuador because she can’t pay her mortgage; and a man, recently diagnosed with cancer, has delayed his treatment because he does not have the money to pay for it.

On Tuesday, 78 potential Life at Sea passengers sent a letter to Markenzy Lapointe, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, asking him to investigate whether Miray, a Turkish cruise company, defrauded them out of millions of dollars. They claim the company raised approximately $16 million and used it as a deposit to purchase a new ship that it ultimately did not purchase. It is unclear whether Lapointe will take action.

Dozens of passengers quit their jobs, sold their homes and withdrew their life savings to pay for what promised to be the adventure of a lifetime: a cruise with 382 ports of call over 1,095 days. But at the end of November, a few days before the cruise was scheduled to depart, the trip was canceled because Miray had not been able to purchase a suitable boat.

Most passengers paid Miray tens of thousands of dollars to secure their staterooms, which ranged from $90,000 to $975,000 for a suite. Some passengers paid the full fare in advance to qualify for a discount. After canceling, Miray said it would offer full refunds to all passengers, but two of the payment deadlines passed and only four of more than 100 passengers received partial refunds.

If the passengers had known how their money was being used, “they could have made informed decisions about parting with their $16 million,” the passengers said in the complaint, adding that the company had explicitly told them that their payments were not being used. used for initial financing.

Last May, the owner of the Miray, Vedat Ugurlu, sent a WhatsApp message to Mikael Petterson, former CEO of Life at Sea, telling him that he had $5 million for the deposit to purchase the AIDAaura, a larger vessel. and more suitable. for the voyage than the MV Gemini originally proposed. He said they needed to come up with $10 million in total because of a bank guarantee and asked Mr. Petterson to meet a May 31 deadline to collect payments from passengers.

Petterson, who was in charge of sales and marketing at the time, said he didn’t feel comfortable collecting large sums of money when the company didn’t have a U.S. bank account or the infrastructure to securely collect payments. Miray refused to set up an escrow account, as is common in the United States, and was not required to post bond with the Federal Maritime Commission to protect customer deposits because it did not ship from U.S. ports.

Miray has denied using passengers’ money for the new ship and has blamed the delay in refunds on the large number of credit card chargeback disputes that he said had caused banks to freeze his funds. Most passengers said they only started requesting chargebacks last week, after the company continued to miss promised payment deadlines.

“We are working tirelessly to get our banks the documentation they need to release our funds, and all of our passengers can be assured that they will be refunded in full by February 15,” Ethem Bayramoglu, director of Miray operations. on January 12.

Many passengers don’t believe it. “I won’t believe anything until I have my money in my hand,” said Kara Youssef, a 36-year-old former aid worker from Ohio who sold her apartments to pay for the cruise and has been living in an Istanbul hotel with her husband. her for more than two months while she waits for her $80,000 refund. On December 29 she received a bank receipt indicating that she had sent the first installment of her payment, but she never received the funds.

After several attempts to contact Mr. Bayramoglu (who, at one point, told her that he was at a soccer match and could not speak), Ms. Youssef finally spoke with him on January 14. He offered to pay him some of her money. sum in person, in cash, but he has yet to set a time and place to meet.

Life at Sea passengers are primarily US citizens. Many of them learned about the cruise from CNN and “Good Morning America.” One of the biggest draws, they said, was the price, which for many would have been less expensive than living in a city for three years. That, combined with the opportunity to explore the world, led them to seize the opportunity.

“I always wanted to take a cruise around the world, but they were all out of my budget,” said Jenny Phenix, 67, who gave up two small businesses, rented her condo in Florida and paid $70,000 to go on the cruise.

The sales team, mostly American, was very convincing, he said. Even when an internal dispute between company executives became public, prompting the sales team to resign in May, passengers were led to believe the cruise would continue.

Now Ms. Phenix shares a house in Ecuador with another stranded passenger because she had to rent her condo in Florida to pay the mortgage.

Phenix and many other passengers are in limbo, struggling to get by. “Some people put everything they had into it and now they’re broke or homeless or wandering from cruise ship to cruise ship like tumbleweeds because they have nowhere else to go,” said David Purcell, a 78-year-old retired lawyer from St. Louis. who sold her house and his car after his wife died and booked the cruise, hoping it would help her recover from losing him.

“I think we have a strong case that warrants a criminal investigation,” Purcell said.

Shirene Thomas, 58, a retired actress and social worker from Wilmington, North Carolina, is one of several passengers who are essentially homeless. She spent a third of her retirement savings and gave up rent to put down $156,000 for the cruise. Now, with limited credit, she hasn’t been able to get a new lease.

“I’m about to go on my fifth cruise in a row,” he said, speaking from a friend’s house in North Carolina. “I literally went from Rome to Manhattan on a transatlantic cruise and four days later I flew back to Rome to do the same cruise again.”

Ms. Thomas has been paying for cruises by credit card, hoping her Miray refund will be processed in time to clear her balances.

Another passenger, Adam Pers, a retired engineer in his 50s from Bristol, England, was diagnosed with cancer after his cruise was canceled and is now looking for work to cover his mortgage and his cancer treatment, which he has had to delay. She said she paid six figures for the entire cruise fare up front so she could get a discount.

“Instead of focusing on my treatment, I have to go through the stress of chasing my money and looking for work,” Mr. Pers said.

Mr. Pers has explained his situation to Miray many times. Every week, Bayramoglu emails him and writes that he will receive the money from him “before Friday.” But Mr. Pers still has not received any money and Miray has stopped responding to his messages.

“Enough is enough,” Pers said. “I’m resigned to the fact that I’m not going to get my money back, but even if I don’t get anything, at least if the federal prosecutor opens an investigation and these people go to prison, that’s something.” .

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John C. Johnson

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