This woman's family paid $4,400 to fly home for Christmas — but their travel agent never bought the tickets

Precious Emelogu worked at McDonald's for a year, saving money to pay for a trip to Nigeria to see her family over Christmas and bring her brother home to Fort McMurray. Two days before her flight, she discovered her travel agent hadn't booked it — and she wasn't the only one.

'We go to the mall where his business is ... the door's locked'

Precious Emelogu, 19, says none of the flights her family booked to and from Nigeria were booked. (Submitted by Precious Emelogu)

Precious Emelogu worked at McDonald's for a year, saving money to pay for a trip to Nigeria to see her family over Christmas and bring her brother home to Fort McMurray.

Emelogu, 19, booked her flight through International Travel Services, a travel agency in Fort McMurray's Peter Pond Mall.

But on Dec. 24, when she tried to check in for her Dec. 26 flight, she came to a realization: she didn't have a ticket.

She said her travel agent hadn't booked her flight. It meant she wouldn't be flying to Lagos, Nigeria's largest city.

Emelogu isn't alone in her travel troubles. Wood Buffalo RCMP are looking into other complaints about the travel agency, which also has an office in Edmonton. CBC News has spoken to other families who claim to have paid for flights and vacations, only to discover they hadn't been booked.

Fort McMurray residents claim International Travel Services didn't book flights they paid for. The company has two locations, one in Fort McMurray and this one, on Edmonton's 118th Avenue. (Craig Ryan/CBC)

Emelogu, her mother and brother had all booked their flights through International Travel Services.

The tickets came to $4,400. The family paid for all of the flights in cash, except for $88 that Emelogu paid with her debit card. She said they had been given the option of paying with debit or credit, but opted to pay for most of the flights in cash, thinking it would be easiest.

When she discovered she didn't have a ticket for her flight, Emelogu tried to get in touch with Ujeer Ahmed, the owner of International Travel Services.

Her mother called Ahmed after getting his personal phone number from a friend. Ahmed instructed them to go to the travel agency on Dec. 26. Emelogu said they were promised everything would be sorted out at that time. 

"We go to the mall where his business is … the door's locked," said Emelogu. "There's about 20 people in the front in the same situation as us, waiting for the man."

Ahmed didn't show up, Emelogu said.

She managed to book another flight to Lagos, but said she'll likely have to take out a loan to pay for it.

Through tears, Emelogu said she was supposed to start college next year, but may not be able to now. 

"I'm going to be in debt," she said. "And we paid with cash, so there's no way to get the money back."

Emelogu said it's an important flight because they have a few personal family matters to sort out, and they were going to fly her brother home with them at the end of the trip. 

Emelogu hasn't been able to contact Ahmed since the phone call on Dec. 24. She went to the RCMP to file a report, as did several other customers. 

RCMP looking into allegations

Wood Buffalo RCMP confirmed they have received several complaints about International Travel Services and are looking into the allegations. No charges have been laid.

"Anyone who booked with this agency for upcoming flights should contact the airlines directly to ensure that their travel is actually booked," said RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Ron Bumbry. 

He said anyone who feels they were a victim — people who booked and paid for flights but didn't get them — should contact Wood Buffalo RCMP.

When someone pays for a service they don't receive, it could result in fraud charges, Bumbry said. The act also has to have an element of "dishonesty" or "deprivation," he said.

According to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), International Travel Services has been in business since 2010. The BBB listed Ujeer Ahmed as the owner of the business. The company holds an A+ rating with the BBB.

CBC called the phone numbers for both locations, but didn't receive responses. An automated message said, "Thanks for calling International Travel Services." It then offered a list of options, including a company directory or leaving a voicemail in the general mailbox.

CBC has also called Ahmed's personal phone number. A message said the number is no longer in use.

As well, CBC messaged the company through Facebook on Friday, but that page has since been removed. 

Family's trip to Mexico disrupted

Fort McMurray resident Nicole Kennedy and her family had a hard year. Kennedy's mother was diagnosed with cancer, and it took months to find out that the cancer wasn't life-threatening. 

The family needed a break, and decided a trip to Mexico would be their Christmas present, a way to escape the stress of the last few months.

Eight family members booked trips through International Travel Services in August, totalling more than $15,000, Kennedy said.

Nicole Kennedy, second from right, booked a Mexico vacation with other family members, including (left to right) son Austin Couture, mother Christine Nelson, father Richard Nelson and brother Ryan Kennedy. (Submitted by Nicole Kennedy)

They were scheduled to leave on Jan. 7. But on Boxing Day, Kennedy saw several Facebook posts claiming that flights booked through International Travel Services weren't reserved.

She called WestJet Vacations to see if she had her flights and accommodation. She didn't.

"It was devastating," said Kennedy. "That was our Christmas."

She said the airline agent told her the confirmation number she was given wasn't real. 

West Jet was unable to confirm Kennedy's booking confirmation number, but did say that all reservations are codes made up of six letters. As well, customers are given 13-digit numbers that designate their ticket numbers.

Kennedy received an eight-digit confirmation code — a mix of numbers and letters — from International Travel Services.

She spent Dec. 27 at the RCMP detachment in Fort McMurray, filing a report about the company.

She then went to the Alberta Motor Association to try to book a new trip. Kennedy and three family members were able to rebook, but the four other travellers couldn't afford it.

Kennedy had already spent months paying off the first trip.

She said she thought International Travel Services would be a good choice — it came highly recommended and had been established in the community for years.

Kennedy hasn't been able to get in touch with Ahmed, but hopes the RCMP are able to track him down and get some answers. 

"This is just ridiculous."

Kennedy says she trusted the company because it had a good reputation and good reviews. (Google Reviews)

Have an idea for a story? Contact reporter Jamie Malbeuf at jamie.malbeuf@cbc.ca.