BALTIMORE – A cruise travel agent will serve more than three years in federal prison and pay nearly $ 433,000 in restitution for committing fraud.
WMAR-2 News Mallory Sofastaii first reported on this scheme in 2019. Many Marylanders thought they were buying discounted travel packages from Diana Hopkins of Florida-based Hopkins Travel Services, instead, their payments were being used to fund other customers’ trips.
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Hopkins’ attorney shared her remorse for causing harm to her customers and said greed didn’t fuel her actions, it was her gambling addiction.
“I believe in my heart, and I’ve represented many people accused of white-collar criminal fraud, that Ms. Hopkins solely committed this crime as a result of a gambling addiction,” said Mark O’Brien, who represented Hopkins and spoke with WFTS Tampa following her sentencing hearing on Monday.
O’Brien requested a lesser sentence saying she accepted responsibility by pleading guilty, needs additional treatment for her addiction, and cares for 12 foster children.
“She knows that the individuals placed trust in her as a travel agent and she violated that trust,” said O’Brien.
The judge stayed within the sentencing guidelines ordering 37 months in federal prison and $ 432,939 in restitution.
And last week, O’Brien said the State of Florida moved to take away the foster children in her care.
READ MORE: Travel agent accused of fraud agrees to pay $ 500k in restitution
“I want to see everyone that is out of money get their money back,” said Karen Regan who bought a cruise package from Hopkins in 2019.
She thought she had booked a bucket list cruise at a bargain.
“I had learned about it through a friend of mine who went to high school with Diana Hopkins and a bunch of their friends traveled with her before, no problem, so I trusted it,” Regan said.
So, she recruited 60 of her friends in the Dundalk, Essex, and Pasadena areas to set sail with her in May of 2021.
“We couldn’t pass it up, it was cheap,” said Regan.
But the “buy-one, get-one free” deal didn’t exist. Federal prosecutors found Hopkins was using customers’ credit cards to make Ponzi-style payments on other client’s reservations.
“She used people’s cards all over the place,” Regan added.
WMAR-2 News exposed this operation in 2019 when customers sent invoices from Norwegian Cruise Line to Sofastaii. Their trips had been canceled after Hopkins was suspected of committing credit card fraud.
In one example, Hopkins sold a trip for $ 2,300, but it actually totaled $ 7,000. Of the 12 payments cards used to book the reservation, only three belonged to the customer.
“She was stealing from Peter to pay Paul and, unfortunately, it caught up to her,” said O’Brien.
Regan and her friends obtained refunds from Norwegian Cruise Line.
And according to O’Brien, Hopkins already refunded a number of customers. Of the 320 customers and 7 corporate entities defrauded, 91 are still owed money.
Hopkins has two weeks to file a notice of appeal.
In Maryland, there’s no license or certification required to be a travel agent, which is why it’s important for consumers to research who they’re working with.
Sarah Kline, president of Time for Travel Ltd. in Davidsonville, Md., Provided these tips for finding a travel agent you can trust.
READ MORE: Finding a travel agent who can deliver your dream vacation