Agent Pleads to Cheating Religious Cuba Travelers


     SANTA ANA (CN) - A travel scam artist was sentenced Tuesday to selling phony trips to elderly Jewish and Greek Orthodox Americans who wanted to travel to Cuba for religious reasons. After they paid their money, he told them the trips where cancelled by the U.S. Treasury Department and he kept the money to buy a Mercedes and hire a divorce lawyer.
     Ralph Adam Rendon, 33, was sentenced to five years in prison for ripping off at least 41 people including 20 seniors who answered ads in religious magazines. He must also pay restitution of $154,000, representing the amount of money taken.
     The Greek Orthodox-Americans were hoping to visit a Greek Orthodox church that Castro allowed to be built in Cuba, according to the original complaint in the matter. The would-be travelers wanted to help members of a small religious community. Of the few thousand Orthodox residents in Cuba, only about 50 are actually Greek, according to an article from internet news site AsiaNews.it.
     The Jewish Americans' trips were also supposed to be for humanitarian purposes, to help the small Jewish community in Cuba.
     The travelers paid up to $4,000 for their trips only to be ignored after Rendon told them their trips had been canceled by the Treasury Department because of a "temporary freeze." A week later the traveler received an "apology" email that said "As soon as we receive word from the U.S. government that the freeze on religious programs in Cuba has been lifted, we will allow you to travel to Cuba at any date of your choosing."
     The ads appeared in the "Orthodox Observer," "Jewish Journal" in San Diego, Orange, and LA counties, and "Jewish Life." A spokesperson from the California Attorney General's office said "We are not aware of any trips offered to the Catholic community."
     According to the Attorney General's office, Rendon pulled in about $154,000 from his scam and used it for his personal expenses, including rent, a new Mercedes and fees for a divorce lawyer. Rendon was sentenced to five years in prison on Monday, and as part of his plea agreement additional fraud charges related to a second scheme of Rendon's will not be pursued.
     While out on bail for the 2006 travel fraud, Rendon started a second company, London Exchange, which charged people $500 to apply for credit cards that didn't exist. according to the Attorney General's office.
     Rendon pleaded guilty to Grand Theft for the travel fraud.