Scam alert: don’t buy Southwest tickets on Craigslist

Every now and then I come across a hard luck case with no easy fix. William Marleau’s story is just the latest. He bought tickets on Southwest Airlines through Craigslist and ended up being drawn into a clever scam that may force him to pay for his flight twice.

Marleau purchased tickets after seeing an online ad last November from Portland to Albany. He took his flight without incident, but four months later a Southwest Airlines “collections specialist” phoned him to say the tickets were bogus and that he need to pay Southwest for them again or the airline would call a collections agency.

What happened? Marleau explains:

The person whose credit card was used to purchase the ticket online disputed the charge. The credit card company took the money from Southwest and now, because I was the person who flew, I am being asked to pay the outstanding amount or be turned into collections.

I asked Southwest for its side of the story. Here’s what spokeswoman Linda Rutherford had to say:

Mr. Marleau paid an undisclosed amount of cash to someone on Craigslist to purchase a Southwest ticket from Portland to Albany. On November 5, 2007 the “someone” he paid used a stolen credit card to buy a $715 ticket off of southwest.com.

The following month the owner of the credit card saw the charge and disputed it with their issuing bank. On December 17, 2007 the cardholder signed an Affirmation Of Unauthorized Use letter.

We received notice of the disputed charge from our credit card processor on February 17, 2008. We accepted the chargeback on February 28, 2008, and it was at this time credit card company took the money from Southwest Airlines.

We contacted Mr. Marleau on March 18, 2008 to inform him of the situation and to make arrangements with him for payment of the flight he took.

That seems fine. But why not pursue the person who perpetrated the scam rather than the passenger?

Bottom line, Southwest has never been paid for the flight Mr. Marleau took. It is our business policy to collect payment from the person who flew.

I understand Mr. Marleau’s frustration. It isn’t that Southwest is not interested in helping sort this out properly. In fact, we have a whole team in finance dedicated to stopping fraud before it happens. Even with our best efforts, we still receive millions of dollars each year in chargebacks.

That policy works well for Southwest, but not for Marleau, who will now have to pay for the same ticket twice. So I asked Rutherford if Southwest was aware that it was basically asking one of its passengers to pay for the same ticket again.

It’s a difficult situation, but we cannot protect a customer who chooses to make a questionable purchase on Craigslist for a Southwest Airlines flight.

We wish we could protect every consumer who is a victim of an online ticket sales scheme, but we do not have the means to accept millions of dollars of chargebacks each year.

We have many people at work in our finance department to catch fraud before it occurs (such as cancelling a ticket before a flight is taken), but we cannot catch all of it.

We have told Mr. Marleau the same thing we tell all the unsuspecting Internet shoppers…there are unscrupulous people out their waiting to defraud well intentioned consumers. Never purchase anything off the Internet unless you can verify the source. For Southwest Airlines, we recommend customers purchase travel on Southwest Airlines only at Southwest.com.

While I understand Southwest’s position — and the reasoning behind it — I’m still troubled by it. While the airline will probably be able to collect its $715 from Marleau and others like him, I think they’re going after the wrong people.

Shouldn’t Southwest be prosecuting the criminals who sell these fraudulent tickets? Threatening a passenger with a collections agency referral is turning him into a victim twice, in my opinion. That’s not right.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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