Travel company scams Tucson-area teens out of $40,000 senior trip
The recent Cienega High School graduates had packed their swimsuits and sunglasses, ready to enjoy one last hurrah of senior year.
The 80 Tucson-area kids and chaperones had paid a travel company $40,000 for a whirlwind trip to California.
But as the teens waited at midnight to depart, bags in hand, from the school parking lot, the buses didn't arrive. The students soon discovered they had been scammed.
Within hours, parents had launched a nationwide crusade to bring travel operator George Barragan and his company, Senior Grad Trips, to justice.
"We're a very tight, small community," Cienega parent Ronda Dillon said. "So, we went absolutely berserk."
More than a year after the May 2017 incident, the families are seeing results.
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich recently announced a consumer fraud lawsuit against Barragan that seeks refunds, fines and to ban him from the travel business.
Promise of a senior trip
The Cienega teens were scheduled to visit Disneyland, Universal Studios and the beach. Families and chaperones had each paid $500 up front for the four-day trip.
A teacher had seen Barragan's website months before advertising excursions for high school seniors to California, Hawaii, Florida, Las Vegas, Mexico and the Bahamas. The website currently shows trips that include hotel, transportation and parties.
Barragan promised the teacher he would take care of buses, hotels, some meals and admission to theme parks for the Cienega kids.
But as the teens waited in the dark parking lot for the missing buses, teachers couldn't get through to Barragan's cellphone or the company's emergency line, Dillon recalled. The bus company said it wasn't paid for a pickup.
By 1:30 a.m., the school told parents to take their teens home.
"I was really angry," Dillon said. "The kids, you could tell, were devastated."
Failed refund promises
The next day, teachers and parents jammed Barragan's voicemail and crashed his website with inquiries, Dillon said.
Then, to her amazement, he called her.
Barragan blamed a former employee for failing to schedule buses and explained he was late responding because he needed to seek legal advice, Dillon remembered.
He promised refunds within seven to 10 days, she said.
"OK, we'll back off. You have seven days," Dillon remembered telling him.
The refunds never came, she said.
So, the parents went to work.
They notified the FBI, the Federal Trade Commission and attorneys general in Texas and Arizona. They hounded Barragan's business associate, Syrus Yarbrough, whose claim to fame was appearing on MTV's "Real World." They flooded websites and social media with bad reviews.
The parents also organized a Facebook group to share information, spied on Barragan's social media accounts and wrote to politicians ranging from a mayor to U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz.
Most galling, Dillon remembered, was seeing Barragan post videos of himself at parties in Cancún, Mexico, just days after stranding the Cienega students.
"Boy, he sure is enjoying my money," Dillon thought.
In the videos, the 43-year-old travel operator dances with young women and remarks how drunk they are, according to recordings Dillon made of a Snapchat account named Senior Grad Trips that she shared with The Republic.
In another video from the account, a man off-camera talks about apparent drug use in a hotel room with young women who wear shirts that say "SGT staff."
"We high as hell. We smokin' out," the voice says.
Dillon shared the videos with parents, but the account soon blocked her.
Students in other states lose money
Since the parents began their campaign, high schools in Virginia, Pennsylvania and California have reported that more than $90,000 in additional trips booked with Barragan fell through with no refunds.
"I'm just hoping he actually gets caught," Dillon said. "I don't know if I'll ever see the money."
Barragan did not respond to a voicemail and an email from The Arizona Republic. Other phone numbers associated with his business were disconnected.
Barragan's Texas-based umbrella company is EB Worldwide, according to Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich. Other names he uses are Senior Grad Trips, SGT, Spring Break All Access, Exhibit Tours, @SBAllAccess_Texas and @VIP_Sweet_Life.
Community steps up to help seniors
Unlike teens in other cities who had to kiss their travel plans goodbye, the Cienega students lucked out.
The Vail community mobilized to save the day.
Less than 24 hours after the confusion in the parking lot, local Culver's franchise owners donated $15,000 and individuals gave nearly $3,000 to fund a new trip. Costco, a local insurance company and high school boosters also contributed.
The kids left the following night, although the outing was closer to economy style.
No Universal Studios. No prepaid meals. No fancy motor coaches.
Instead, the teens rode the district school buses, Dillon said.
On the way home, the air conditioning on one bus stopped working, and the students had to wait in Yuma for a new one to pick them up, she said.
"That was hotter than heck," Dillon joked.
Although the trip was a little different, the kids had a good time, she said.
The hotel hung a banner in their honor and a California Pizza Hut that heard about their ordeal catered their dinner, Dillon said.
'Keep your eyes open'
The experience was an eye-opener for Dillon's then-18-year-old daughter Alena as she entered adulthood, the mother said.
"Not everything is just as it seems," Dillon said the teenagers learned. "Keep your eyes open. Be aware."
But even as an adult, the mom is puzzled why it took so long for law enforcement to get involved.
"I could go to a grocery store and shoplift, and I would be put in jail that night," Dillon said. "This man stole ($40,000), and it's taken more than a year for someone to say, 'We'll do something.' What does it take for someone to care?"
Dillon said her daughter isn't surprised by her mom's tenacity during the yearlong campaign.
The efforts continue. Dillon said she still texts Barragan every few weeks "just to be a thorn in his side."
To report consumer fraud to the Arizona attorney general, file a complaint online at azag.gov/complaints/consumer or call 602-542-5763 from Phoenix, 520-628-6648 from Tucson or 800-352-8431 from another U.S. city.
Have you been scammed, defrauded or treated badly by a business? I'm #HereToHelpAZ. Contact consumer protection reporter Rebekah L. Sanders by emailing email@example.com, texting HereToHelpAZ to 51555 or filling out our online form.