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ASTA to Aid California Agencies

http://www.travelagewest.com/newsarticle.asp?articleid=1170

TravelAgeWest

By David Peterkofsky

The ASTA Litigation Center, a nonprofit law firm affiliated with ASTA, will work with attorneys to help defend some 225 agencies named in a lawsuit filed by an entity called the Consumer Action League in California Supreme Court in Sacramento.

The suit alleges that the agencies violated state law by failing to post their California Seller of Travel numbers on their marketing materials, including their Web sites.

Brian Kindsvater, the Sacramento-area attorney representing the plaintiff, said his client filed the suit to help enforce the law and serve as an industry watchdog on behalf of consumers, since the state attorney general's office apparently has not.

"It's time to enforce the law, as evident by the number of defendants in this lawsuit, which is clearly not everyone who's violating the law," he said. "It just hasn't been enforced. Now people are going to have to do something about it."

Kindsvater said he's received a wide range of responses from those named in the suit, including about a dozen agencies willing to settle by paying a monetary sum.

"There are some people who said they've been registered with the state and just haven't had their registration numbers on their materials," he said. "For the most part, those have been fairly nice people to talk to."

Others responded differently. One San Francisco agent called Kindsvater and claimed to have always had his CST number on his agency's site, but he backed down when Kindsvater said he could prove otherwise using a version of the agency's site from before the suit's filing.

"It's unfortunate that some people take that approach," the attorney said. "It's one of the reasons why the industry has had problems over the years and why there are registration numbers."

Kindsvater said his settlement option, which generally amounts to "a couple thousand dollars" per agency, provides the defendants with a potentially less costly way to deal with the suit.

"If the attorney general's office brought this claim, people could be looking at claims up to $10,000 and a year in jail," he said, adding that attorney fees would drive that sum even higher. "I'm not going to put anyone in jail, and I'm not going to make anyone pay $10,000, so better me than anyone else."

Not surprisingly, the suit's arrival hasn't sat well with the agents named therein.

"We have enough headaches now - commissions are being cut, nobody's traveling because of the situations out in the world - we don't need this," said Roberta Last of Travel Wizard in La Mesa, Calif.

Last concedes that the Web site for her agency, a mom-and-pop storefront east of San Diego, accidentally omitted the CST number when the site was redesigned recently. But she doesn't buy the notion that she hurt the public with the omission.

"Why would we pay the Seller of Travel licensing and pay into the restitution fund?" asked Last, who also conferred with her provider of errors-and-omissions insurance since receiving her summons. "If somebody's going to be a crook, they're not going to have a Seller of Travel number."

Last's attorney, Alexander Anolik, has received calls from about 30 of the defendants. He advised them to immediately post their CST numbers on all marketing materials. Anolik also capped his fee at $1,000 to handle the case, roughly half of what Kindsvater's client is seeking.

"If I can get the agents to pay less money and still respond, then we're going to deter what are known as 'copycat vultures,' " Anolik said. "When a suit like this is filed on a technicality, you get [other lawyers] who copy the exact lawsuit."